Canada/US Road Trip
Vancouver to San Francisco Road Trip May 2018
© Tim Bentinck 2018
On July 12th 1977, I drove a Trek America Dodge minibus full of assorted antipodeans over the Golden Gate Bridge, as the AM radio played the Scott McKenzie song, ‘Are you going, to San Francisco?’
I missed my girlfriend Judy back in London. Forty years later, on the water below, I danced with that girlfriend on our wedding anniversary, courtesy of the Hornblower Dinner Cruise - and the band played the same song. I do so love coincidence.
Forty years wed, in San Francisco. To be recommended. This time as we crossed the bridge in our enormous rented SUV I could have put the song on the iPhone and Bluetoothed it to the car stereo, but that wouldn’t be in keeping with Bentinck’s Serendipity Tours. The best things in life are the ones that aren’t planned.
We’d driven from Vancouver – a road trip that I’d been wanting to do with Judy since those days, but, rather than repeating the straight-line coast to coast slog of 1977, we went for a North-South drive by the ocean. I went for the redwoods and computers, Judy went for the vineyards and the hats, we both got blown away by the food, and I have to admit through gritted English teeth, the really good beer.
Canada may be America Lite and part of the Commonwealth, but they still do big. The cars, the trucks, the roads seem larger, the food portions are massive and DIY stores have combine harvesters on the shop floor. We’d flown over the (very large) Rockies in a twin prop from Calgary, we changed currency that had the Queen’s head on the dollar bills and the airport felt like Heathrow, but the familiarity disappeared at the first sight of airport staff wearing GIGANTIC white Stetsons.
That still slightly European feel continued in Vancouver. The boutique Wedgewood Hotel would sit pretty in any upmarket French resort, and outdo it for food, for comfort, and for the size of the bed – it was actually as wide as it was long. This spoke either of bad marital relationships, or imaginative sex. The nearby Hawksworth restaurant set the gastronomic bar for the rest of our trip quite ridiculously high. Quiet and intimate, with a view of the sommelier Marco's glass-walled inner sanctum, and an open view of a calm kitchen with nary a screaming chef in sight, we were encouraged by Jack, the Dubliner maître d', to go with the seven-course pairing 'Spring Journey Menu 2018'. A chef/sommelier creation of unforgettable subtlety.
The Granville Island Market Tour allowed us to sample the fresh local produce in all its wide varieties. We have farmers markets and food halls, but here were seemingly endless rows of every kind of food imaginable. On our short tour we tried vegetable falafel, Colombian coffee, locally made bread, a selection of charcuterie and of cheeses, locally grown apples, interesting tea, and donuts… mmm… donuts.
We then hopped on a tiny boat-ette, that was like something out of the movie 'Cars' - its name had to be Boat-eh McBoat-eh-face and you expected it to look round at you with doe eyes and say, 'Where to pardner? Eh?' (yes, it seems Canadians really do say 'eh?' all the time!)
I played the part of Casey Jones on an enormous steam engine at the 374 Engine Pavilion, en route to playing Pitch ‘n Putt in Stanley Park. Which is similar to playing it in Fakenham except the greens are like billiard tables and the trees make you feel you’re at the US Open.
If you’re partial to Japanese food (and after visiting our son in Tokyo four years before we’d got the taste) then Miku Restaurant on Granville Street offers a very different experience from the Hawksworth. Lively, bustling, full of Japanese locals and tourists, the waiter was unaccountably a Kiwi but the food was sensational – another pairing menu. I could get used to these…
Oh, to live in a place where you commute by seaplane, and get to sit up front with the pilot too! Even the joy of our recent qualification for free tube and bus travel doesn’t beat that. We flew over Bentinck Island (not sure which relation that was) but we won’t re-locate there – it used to be a leper colony and is now used as a military range. An hour later we touched down gently on the waters of Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Of all the many fascinating things in the Royal BC Museum, the object that intrigued me most was a Haida First Nation black wood carving of the white settlers, an extraordinary insight into how these strange creatures appeared to them.
Bicycles and beer shouldn’t really go together, but the Pedaler tour involved both. Three pubs, three ‘racks’ of pretty strong IPA. By the end of it I knew Victoria intimately, had made friends with a farmer from Saskatchewan and had shown why Canadians shouldn’t start a dirty joke telling competition with an Englishman after the best part of four pints – on a bicycle. There will only ever be one winner.
In the Little Jumbo Bar, I got talking to some French Canadians, in French, who explained the difference between French and Canadian French, in Canadian French, which I didn't really understand, but the cocktails were good. A fine meal at the 10 Acres Kitchen – near the water so we both had fish, halibut and salmon, and a dreamily comfortable night in the sweet Magnolia Hotel – smaller bed but hey, as long as the pillows are like clouds, who cares?
We didn’t see any whales on the Eagle Wing Whale Tour - the first week of May is a bit early in the year – but we had an elemental day at sea, saw seals, bald eagles and possibly a wolf, and we had Dale as our skipper, a man with probably the coolest maritime facial hair in Canada and a wonderfully disparaging view of his ‘teenage’ American neighbours!
Voted ‘Best Irish Pub in North America’, The Irish Times exceeded expectations. The Guinness was pure, the bangers and mash were ‘Waffer Thin Mint’ filling, and Darrah was the perfect host. The live band was Canadian, but the place felt like Dublin, and surrounded by colleens in mini-kilts, you could hear the Celtic origins of the music.
And so to America. The enormous Victoria Clipper cut effortlessly through the waves to whisk us into Seattle, and it was rather like going back in time…
As the scruffy Seattle taxi pulled up under the vast canopy of the Fairmont Olympic Grand Motor Entrance, and the trilby-wearing bellhop opened the doors and took our bags from the trunk, I immediately felt like Al Capone, and Judy was my moll. The enormous lobby, recently restored to its Art Deco best, lacked only cigar smoke, double-breasted jackets and violin cases to complete the feeling of slightly dangerous thirties grandeur. After waiting mere seconds for one of six high speed lifts to whisk us to the 20th floor, we were ushered into our suite. We changed for dinner – I figured my jacket and chinos was maybe a mite under-dressed, I was sure spats and a tuxedo were de-rigueur, but when we sauntered down to the Terrace Bar for a light supper I was disabused of my fantasy when two guys in jeans and t-shirts sat down, swore like stevedores and swilled Bud Lite – a beer I still find simply pointless. The food was good, the whiskey better and the bed was even bigger than the Canadian one – this one needed satnav guidance. Beware the large designer bottles of designer water though, they cost a staggeringly designerish $8 each!
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour was a surprisingly good way to get to know the early history of Seattle. Our guide was convinced that he looked like Mr Bean, which he didn't, and said the flush down toilet was invented by Thomas Crapper, which it wasn't. Otherwise though, an extraordinary tale of persistence in the face of adversity. When the early town flooded regularly, their answer was to hose down the mud of the nearby hills to create a higher surface for the roads and buildings that was slightly more above sea level. Parts of the early town remain underground, and this tour is an extraordinary time capsule. I wish we'd had time to do the more 'adult' evening tour, when the 'seamstresses' who essentially funded the project are revealed to have been prostitutes. That industry and the fleecing of would-be gold prospectors on their way to dashed hopes of riches in Alaska were what made the town wealthy.
From under the town to over it in one morning. From the de Havilland Floatplane flight over Seattle we saw that the high-rise centre is actually quite small. By lunchtime we were Seattle experts, all we needed now was to actually walk the streets. Which we proceeded to do...
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was an eye-opener. I’m ashamed to say I had no real idea of the extent of its good work – turns out that this is because they don't shout about it, or advertise. If anything is likely to 'Make America Great Again' it is this sort of quiet philanthropy, working around the world to fight disease, poverty, and inequality, working with partners to use innovation and creativity to further their ends. The scope of their work is huge, from fighting malaria and other diseases worldwide, to backing a London hairdresser who cuts hair of the homeless for free. We heard criticism about their commitment to domestic issues, but they also fund hundreds of US projects, including the Washington Families Fund, which is trying to solve the serious problems of homelessness in the city.
Unfortunately, the Space Needle was going through a massive rebuild so had rather lost the original sixties feel. I’ve never seen so much merchandise though – stuff seems to have been added every year since 1962. If you've ever hankered after a Gumball Filled Candy Space Needle Yard, or a Vintage Space Needle Snowglobe Ring Game, this is the place for you. These quaint souvenirs brought back images of Jetson-inspired sixties families almost more poignantly than the tower itself, as did the short ride on the monorail – how futuristic it must have seemed back then. In Europe, such a thing would have been junked years ago, but like the cable cars in San Francisco that we were soon to experience, Americans are better than us at keeping older forms of transport. While we might preserve things that are hundreds, or even thousands of years old, recent stuff tends to get updated, but in the States, a week ago is history.
The food tour of Pike Place Market was fun. Our guide, Katia, was also an actress. I found out later that almost everyone in the US who does this kind of work is actually an actor, so that when I described myself as such, no-one batted an eyelid. It was only when I talked about the films I'd been in that they realised I was the sort of actor who actually works! They have a thing where they throw fish around to each other and I volunteered to catch one. I was stood behind the counter and a guy threw a fish at me. I caught it. This apparently was ‘awesome’. Luckily I’m good at Frisbee. We were shown The Original Starbucks which was actually the fourth Starbucks, as the original had burned down. People were queueing to take photographs of themselves queueing for a coffee. Baffling.
For me, the Living Computers Museum was complete bliss. Nerd porn. I could have stayed there for a month. The three floors of computers past, present and future were pretty amazing in themselves – I came across a punch card machine that had been my first encounter with computers when working for Shell in Hamburg in 1972, much to my young guide's astonishment. But it was when he took me into the basement that my mind was completely blown. Aisle after aisle of old machines, with shelves up to the ceiling, including a casual reference to an old Cray 2 that they were about to start rebuilding. Up on the top floor was Colin, about my age, peering through a magnifying glass at a magnetic optical disk from the sixties. He was building a machine to read it. I truly was in awe. Judy went to Chihuly Garden and Glass, which was also ‘awesome’, but in an entirely different way.
Seattle to Yakima
The road trip begins. Our Alamo rental was a Jeep Cherokee which, rather unnervingly, had a sticker on the sun visor that warned that the car would topple over if cornered too quickly. The journey to Yakima however was beautiful, and topple-free. We arrived to the vibrations of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and the whole town was in party mood.
The US has recently ousted Germany as the biggest hop growing country in the world, and most of these grow in the Yakima Valley. Up until two years ago there were only two brewers in the valley, now there are thirteen. We were here to taste this amazing variety of beer… oh and the wine… oh and the pizza. I’ve always maintained that Sorrento Pizza in Highbury make the best pizzas in the world but Hoptown Wood Fired Pizza is a completely different experience. The wood fire and local ingredients make for a unique taste, and there’s nothing like American sunshine and a beer to improve the taste no end. Well, I wasn’t driving…
At Trevari Cellars, we learned a lot about the production of sparkling wines, including a tour of the winery and bottling process. Jürgen was originally from Germany and had a fascinating German/American accent. Passionate about his wine, his enthusiasm was infectious, and we felt it important to sample the full range, especially as I wasn't driving...
At the Bale Breaker Brewing Company, we watched as two cowgirls rode off to work. It made me think how much I'd like to ride a western saddle again. Here I sampled a 'flight' of beer while the smell of the nearby hog roast was making me think that it was a while since the pizza... All these beers are strong, most over 5% and they range from light to heavy. I thought it important to try them all – you see I wasn't driving...
The Wilridge Winery and Vineyard made us feel like we were in the heart of the west. A lovely view over rolling hills, a house that felt more like a home than a winery, really delicious wine and a massive plate of cheese to go with it. Sitting on a comfy sofa, shooting the breeze, drinking wine, we didn't want to leave. Now I was so glad I wasn't driving...
That evening we had an unexpectedly delicious meal in the industrial chic of the Cowiche Canyon Kitchen. I had a huge steak – and LOTS of water.
Yakima to Portland
Next day we drove to Portland, Oregon. When you’re driving a V8, and there’s a sign that says, ‘No Gas for Fifty Miles’, the thing to do is turn round and visit the Exxon station you’ve just passed, not head for the beautiful hills where there is no phone signal, on a quarter tank and optimism. Freewheeling to a halt outside the Ace Hotel, our first thought was 'is this a youth hostel?' Achingly trendy and hipster scruffy, when we got to the room it all became clear. Almost everything was upscaled or environmentally friendly – the sofa covered in ex-military groundsheets and lovely individual art on the wall. A dreamily comfortable bed and, thrillingly, a record deck, under which was a box of random LPs, none of which we'd ever heard before. I hadn't put a record on a turntable for about twenty years, and there's something intangibly more real about the music than that from an mp3 or CD. I couldn't work out whether the book of matches on the loo cistern was encouraging you to get stoned in the shower (Portland is SO hip – pensioners on skateboards) or to take away the smells. Figured probably the latter.
Street food in Portland is varied and delicious, but for some inexpensive haute cuisine, try the Little Bird Bistro on SW 6th Ave. Oysters, Escargots, Carpaccio, Confit Duck leg, Coq au vin and cheese board. Chardonnay for Judy and Ex Novo Dynamic Duo IPA for me - then some quite superb whiskies! Lovely atmosphere and it didn’t break the bank. No state sales tax helps.
Powell’s City of Books. Think Foyle’s, but the size of a small town. We bought a book on the history of Oregon, to make up for the sadly closed floor on the subject at the otherwise intriguing Oregon Historical Society. The Portland Maritime Museum is in fact an old paddle steamer. On board is a huge collection of models, photos, bits of old ship, and an early film of the old dear shooting the rapids at fifty mph. The dedicated and knowledgeable volunteer guides were suitably impressed with my HMS Portland baseball cap!
After a tour of the city’s distilleries, Westwood and Bull Run, and an educational session of sampling American Single Malt Whiskies – so different from Scotch as they’re made from corn, we ended up at a very different restaurant. Departure on SW Morrison St. is Asian Fusion with a panoramic view – loud, buzzy and exciting. The food just kept coming and the beef on hot stones should probably be on a list of things you go into rehab for.
A big thank you to the thief who broke into the car and stole my dirty underwear. Not only did the people at Alamo replace the car immediately, but we also got an upgrade. This meant that we no longer had the fear of toppling over, and totally bossed the rest of our road trip in a massive SUV, without having to stop at a laundromat.
Portland to the Pacific
‘Awesome’. A much-misused word, particularly by Americans. A cheese and pickle sandwich is not awesome, nor is an episode of Family Guy. The Pacific Ocean however does truly inspire awe. The impact of the timeless roar of power from the water may be enhanced at night by the warm glow of fine Pacific Coast wines, but in the morning, the effort of having made it there remained supremely satisfied.
The Stephanie Inn, Cannon Beach, Oregon is on the ocean. We didn’t check in but had a checking in ‘experience’. The room was sumptuous, with fake log fire and Jacuzzi, but what made it unique was the view. We stepped out of the patio doors and heard the thunder of that sound that has not altered since the dawn of time. We went for a walk along the enormous beach to Haystack Rock and did leaps-of-joy photos to post online. Real Norfolk weather, but in a way the lovelier for that.
We changed for dinner – it was either that or grow stubble and wear a frayed t-shirt and jeans for the programmer/billionaire effect. Another taster menu, but this time with beer. Really clever and subtle taste combinations – the lamb was from sheep that grazed in the fields beyond the spectacular mountain view, and the ice cream was made with local duck eggs.
A child of the fifties, for me America has always meant cowboys. Bonanza, Rawhide, The Lone Ranger – six-guns and duels in grainy black and white, so riding a mustang along the Pacific shore is almost my only reason for going to the States. From the C&M Stables near Florence, Oregon, we headed for the beach on horse trails through the woods. We were the intrepid 49ers, heading west, and I kept a lookout for Injuns and wolves. We rode over the huge dunes to be greeted by a beach of blinding white sand. The joy of an American saddle is that it’s built for long distance – you sit a trot, and a canter is like driving an automatic. Pure joy. We could hardly walk for the next two days, but it was worth it.
We drove through the mountains to Crater Lake. At times we could have been in the Swiss Alps, or Scotland, or the Vienna woods, but it’s different in America – the trees are enormous, the lakes are more numerous, longer and wider, the mountain peaks are snow covered but the Spring is sunny and hot. All the waterfalls are gigantic and, in the true sense of the word, awesome. Oddly, we saw little wildlife or roadkill, apart from the occasional circling hawk, looking in vain for roadkill.
The Park Warden who greeted us at Crater Lake was from Essex. 'What are you doing here?' I asked. 'I came for a holiday and never left' she replied in pure Estuarine. Crater Lake is worth the drive. A dormant volcano filled with the purest, bluest water. Once the massive Harley Davidsons with their massive riders had left, it was the most beautiful, peaceful view. I just wish we'd had time to explore the rim, but, as ever, the itinerary called. We stopped in the shop and bought some Elk and Buffalo jerky, which tastes strangely like the Crocodile and Kangaroo jerky I’d brought back from Australia. Endangering species from different sides of the planet.
The Prospect Historic Dinner House isn’t a hotel, more of a bed & breakfast. It has a kind of frontier feel to it. People-watching from the stoop, it was buggies and horses in the past. Now it's good ol’ boys in exhaust-damaged pickups, smokin' their way through the day. The food was good – a peculiar shrimp cocktail but an excellent and tender rib-eye, and Judy's salmon knocked the Seattle fish-throwing foodie tour samples into a cocked hat. We were thinking that the room had an almost European feeling to it – it was quiet – until we realised that all the diners were indeed European. The German couple were discussing in hushed tones how root beer tasted of toothpaste. Sitting outside on the stoop in the evening it was so peaceful. Apart from the exhaust-damaged pickups. Which are LOUD. Then Fred and his wife Karen, who is also the excellent chef, came for a chat. We learned that South Oregon and Northern California are populated by a historic influx of southern states settlers after the Civil War. Them good ol' boys have Southern accents. A bear is a 'barr'. And Trump is their hero.
There are more houses of the Victorian era in Eureka than any town in America, and it had a wonderful feeling of the past, sleepy and quiet. Logging and fishing created the town during the gold rush, but it was not so successful at the actual gold panning. Eureka is a protected cold bay with an Arctic current, the biggest supplier of oysters in the US. I think we sampled most of them. And boy were they good.
Redwoods are bit like Ents in Lord of the Rings - these huge edifices feel more animal than plant, and when we stopped at a quiet lay-by and walked into the woods, sat down by a burbling brook and fallen tree bridge, again we felt like pioneers in a strange and monumentally powerful land. The tallest redwood is higher than the Statue of Liberty and is called Hyperion.
If you want to pretend to be Little Red Riding Hood, try staying at the Grandma’s cottage that is The Brambles, near Boonville. Divided into two apartments, the other was taken by a composer, there to write his next oeuvre – a wonderful spot for peace and tranquillity. That evening we sat on the stoop and watched fireflies dancing in the spotlight that illuminated the Pachyderm – a friendly redwood with an Elephant growing out of its side. Spooky!
Just start your visit to San Francisco with the cable cars. Still used by some for a daily commute and the same system that was built in 1877, we watched the drivers’ use of levers, clamps and brakes to attach and release from the cable under the road, moving at 10mph, to climb the impossibly steep hills, and go down the other impossibly steep side, without everyone screaming that they’re going to die. Fiendishly clever, and it survived an earthquake.
Or you can use a Segway. I’d always been a bit resistant to them because you do look like a bit of a dick, especially if you wear a helmet – like Segways were dangerous. But they’re really fun to drive, and you just sort of get it immediately. They won’t do the hills though. There is an odd need by American guides – of food tours, of insect zoos and of Segway instructors, to speak to you as though you were three, but they all mean so genuinely well, it’s hard to be churlish.
In the penny arcade on Fisherman’s Wharf, all the machines are lovingly restored relics from the early C20 - automatons, Test Your Strength machines, Pianolas, all redolent of Navy boys heading to war showing off to their gals. These were the video games of their day, decried by their parents as ‘addictive’ just as much as ‘Doom’ was seen as the downfall of youth in the 1990’s.
After three weeks driving the west coast in The Land of The Free, it seemed fitting to end our road trip in Alcatraz. Sitting on the steps of the recreation yard where for forty years, gangsters, crooks and murderers had been able to see, so tantalisingly close, yet impossible to reach, the sights and sounds of the freest of American cities, we were grateful that the screams and shouts of the prisoners were only those heard in our audio guide, and we were free to sail back across the choppy waters to the poignancy of the view from our room at the Zephyr Hotel – of Alcatraz itself.
We’ll be coming back – next time in an open Mustang in summer.