Go! Road Trips 2010

Seattle’s nice, but rolling out of town in the springtime is even sweeter. Here, five excuses to load the trunk, get behind the wheel, and put rubber to asphalt.

By James Ross Gardner, David Laskin, Jessica Voelker, Lia Steakley Dicker, and Christopher Werner March 17, 2010 Published in the April 2010 issue of Seattle Met

La Fama is a hot spot for tacos, burritos, and tortas.

Travel time: 3.5 hours

Tacos in Pasco

by Lia Steakley Dicker

Somewhere around mile marker 74 on Interstate 82, our wine-tasting trip to the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Pasco, Richland) turned into a pursuit for the best Mexican food in Washington. The change in course came when my car mates complained that, despite its award-winning wines, the region is a cultural wasteland.

Appalled by their urbanite snobbery, I pointed out that, in Eastern Washington’s agrarian community Mexican migrant workers keep an abundance of authentic cantinas and taquerias in business. To which one travel companion replied, “Forget the cabernet, I want carne asada!”

The quest was on. And by the time we’d had our fill of tasting rooms along Tulip Lane—Richland’s winery row—quizzing vineyard hands on their top taco-shack picks or where to score the tastiest huevos rancheros, our road trip had a focal point: Pasco.

We checked into the Clover Island Inn, a 150-room waterfront hotel in Kennewick with sweeping views of the Columbia River, and spent the next two days eating our way through Pasco.  

Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve offers stunning views of the Columbia River and beyond.

The gastronomic tour led us first to El Charrito, a whitewashed mission-style eatery. We gorged on generous plates of chiles rellenos and chicken mole, but the showstopper came in the form of the thick-as-pancakes handmade tortillas we used to sop up every last morsel. A few blocks away sat La Fama. The tiny neon yellow and green taqueria serves piping-hot tacos, burritos, and Mexican sandwiches known as tortas. Before chowing down, we dressed the dishes to perfection with homemade red and green chili sauces, pico de -gallo, and other fresh fixings from the salsa bar.

Between meals we burned off calories exploring area parks. In McNary National Wildlife Refuge off Highway 12, we spied yellow-head blackbirds and Canada geese. A short but steep hike to the summit of the Badger Mountain Centennial Preserve, south of Richland and west of Kennewick, paid off in panoramic views of the glistening Columbia River and windswept steppes. Then we doubled back to Pasco, to what ended up being my favorite taqueria of all.

Large photos of Salvadoran and Mexican dishes hung on the walls at El Amanecer, bridging the English-Spanish language gap. My friends tucked into tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Me? I opted for a pupusa, a biscuitlike flat bread made from corn and filled, in my case, with cheese and pumpkin. One bite into the warm doughy delight sent me hustling back to the counter to order more.

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Travel time: 9 hours

Hot Time in Brookings

by David Laskin

Samuel H. Boardman State Park is just four miles north of Brookings.

The Brookings Effect is a quirk of topography and air pressure that brings occasional balmy blasts to Oregon’s southernmost coastal town. I’d heard about it, but I expected it to be one of those fine meteorological distinctions, like the difference between partly cloudy and mostly sunny. Then I drove down the coast one serene early summer week and did a double take as my car thermometer spiked at Harris Beach State Park at the northern edge of town. Unlike bathers in most Northwest coastal waters, the kids were all the way in the water. The retirees promenading on the main drag of Chetco Avenue sported deep mahogany tans. As I walked through the garden of my B&B, the perfume of the flowers all but shimmered in the heat. On a rugged coastline more famous for storms than sun, Brookings is a heat island.

If you think you know coastal Oregon because you’ve been to Cannon Beach or Newport, keep going south on Route 101. Past the sand dunes around Florence and the salmon runs of the Rogue River, the continent’s edge gets wildly sculptural. The beauty climaxes right before Brookings in a pageant of sea stacks. Stone arches rise from the swells and pine-clad headlands drop down to pocket beaches. Local boosters have christened this the Wild Rivers Coast in homage to the stunning rivers, each with a town at its mouth, that spill down from the coastal range. Oregon’s final fling is the Chetco, a strip of liquid satin that divides Brookings proper from its twin city, Harbor.

I neither boat nor fish, but I must say I envied both the owners of the pleasure craft moored in Harbor’s picture-perfect boat basin and the occupants of the drift boats casting for steelhead and Chinook in the river’s gravelly reaches. Charles Kocher, the publisher of the local newspaper, is the town’s biggest booster. “What I love about Brookings is that it’s drop-dead gorgeous and two hours from anywhere,” he told me. “One hour in any direction and the landscape is incredible.” But you don’t have to leave town. Breakfast with the fishermen (starting at 4am) at the Oceanside Diner near the boat basin; spin south past the lily fields (all of the world’s Easter lilies originate here—the flowers are at their fragrant peak in June and early July); sit down to a sushi lunch (Tuesday through Friday) at soothing Café Kitanishi ; then stroll back to Harris Beach to watch the sun go down over rock, sand, grass, and water.

The banana-belt climate is nice, especially in winter, which explains the predominance of retired folk; but the Brookings Effect only kicks in when the wind blows down the mountains. The best thing about this town is that the beauty pressing in from every direction is permanent.

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Travel time: 2 hours

Sequim in a Sports Car

by Christopher Werner 

When a friend let me borrow her Porsche 911 Carrera, the game plan was practically already written: Break out a bitchin’ collection of CDs, adjust the Ray Bans in the mirror, and bolt full throttle out of town.

The pocket-size peninsula town of Sequim might not strike Northwesterners as the best place to parade a fine piece of German engineering. But I’m from Wisconsin, which is about as flat as my vowels are drawn out. Since moving to Seattle two years ago, I had itched to scale the Olympics. That regal range is a holy adventurer’s grail to me but, carless, I had never experienced it. I vowed the first time I got my hands on a set of wheels, I’d head for the foothills. The little burg just 60 miles from Seattle and 40 minutes from Olympic National Park seemed an obvious base.

Funny thing is, my travel companion and I found that our favorite moments in Sequim were not the ones we spent careening around the foothills, pushing the Porsche to its road-hugging limits in a half-assed attempt to appease my mountain fix. Rather what we found on the flat terrain made us view Sequim as more than just a gateway to the Olympics.

First, the wineries. Olympic Cellars, just off Highway 101, served as a launch pad for us and a number of other giddy vino lovers playing tasting-room roulette among the region’s half dozen vineyards. Co-owner Kathy Charlton displays her entrepreneurial panache in the press clippings completely covering the walls of her wine shop. Her chatter was as free-flowing as her pours; while plenty of other tasters eagerly awaited refills, Charlton made sure to tell us about every—I mean every—tasting note. She also filled us with freshly grilled oysters.

Lavender farms in and around Sequim are a major tourist draw.

Sequim’s friendly vibe popped up again at nearby Alder Wood Bistro, where our cheeky waitress made spot-on recommendations: chicken saltimbocca and, especially, a plush Portuguese Grahams Six Grapes Reserve port.

But no Sequimite beats Dungeness Bay Cottages owner John Webb in the affability department. After check-in, Webb quizzed us on our interests (wine, hiking) and helped us draw up a plan of attack. The cottages, just steps from Dungeness Bay (which empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca), make for an ideal late-afternoon spot to wind down and sip varietals procured at main street’s Damiana’s Best Cellars.

Dusk cast an eerie, only-in-Washington glow. You know the kind: Darkness encroaches but takes its sweet time to settle, creating an iridescent gray haze. Like the lights of Victoria, BC, across the way, stars—So many! So bright!—flashed on one by one as if they, too, were controlled by a switch.

The fog blanketing the bay out my window was slow to burn off the next morning. I was slow to rise, all too cozy in the cottage. Still, I couldn’t leave town without a stroll along Dungeness Spit, the longest natural sandbar in the U.S., and Sequim’s most noteworthy attraction.

Early risers can dodge the throngs of families who show up later with wobbly-footed tots (and who, let’s face it, cramp the whole serenity thing). One can pass an entire day hiking to the historic New Dungeness Lighthouse perched five miles out. Or just pad along the trail for five minutes for views of the soaring Olympics—a sight that rivals those seen from a fast car.

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Ebey’s Landing is the best spot to catch sunsets.

Travel time: 1 hour

Langley Seafood Feast

by Jessica Voelker

Every few minutes I heard my dad creaking in the back, stretching the leg straight, bending it again. We’d been stuck in my stiff-seated Subaru for an hour—long enough to see two boats leave Mukilteo without us. Long enough to count a dozen spirals of soft-serve ice cream as fellow ferry-waiters paraded by with cones procured at the fish-and-chips stand near the ferry dock.

We resisted. My parents and I were saving ourselves for a late lunch at Prima Bistro in Langley, the Whidbey Island village that overlooks the Saratoga Passage. I’d been to Langley earlier in the summer on an overnight jaunt too short to schedule a tramp through the nearby Saratoga Woods Preserve, but long enough to slide a fork into a most tender slice of Alaskan king salmon at the Inn at Langley. From my room’s private deck, I had watched a melon-sherbet sunset send blips of light dancing onto the black-and-blue waves bubbling up to the rocky beach. That was the Northwest I wanted to show my parents—two New Englanders always keen to lace up a pair of hiking boots.

But then my dad tore his Achilles tendon diving for a tennis ball back in Connecticut. Their Seattle trip was postponed for surgery, then made possible only through the magic of Percocet. We wouldn’t be hiking.

Still, after three days of shuttling them between my three-room apartment and Capitol Hill restaurants whose tiny banquettes proved a poor match for a large man with an injured ankle, I sensed cabin fever. If we couldn’t spot eagles on the beach trails, at least we could suck up some local bivalves on Prima’s rooftop deck.

The sky darkened with clouds as an orange-vested fellow finally herded the Sub onto the ferry, putting the kibosh on the Grey’s Anatomy–esque vision I had of my parents and I leaning out the back of the ferry boat contemplating the sun-dappled Sound. Our boat docked at the Clinton terminal 20 minutes later, and we wheeled the car six miles up pine-lined 525 North. 

Penn Cove mussels are a top food find on Whidbey Island.

Art galleries hawking oil paintings of clipper ships and ladies’ boutiques partial to lacy and rhinestone-studded fun-wear line Langley’s First Street. On Prima Bistro rooftop deck we demolished plates of Penn Cove mussels from just up the road in Coupeville, soaking the accompanying French fries in their salty marinière broth. The sun peeked out just as we finished off the last of the frites, so my parents and I lingered at the table chatting lazily and keeping our eyes on the bluff and the sea beyond, not wanting to miss the moment should an eagle glide by.

After lunch we took advantage of dry skies long enough to amble around the shops along First Street, coveting some handmade Iranian rugs at Islandesign Interiors and refueling with lattes at Mike’s Place. There we once again resisted ice cream, that icy sweet siren of sightseers. We were already making dinner plans.

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Travel time: 3 hours

Chilling in Chelan

by James Ross Gardner

I was late, hungry, and lost. The buildings up and down Quetilquasoon Road looked shapeless in the dark. I fumbled for my phone and dialed. “ Wapato Point Cellars ,” said a male voice on the other end. I apologized for being nearly an hour overdue for my dinner reservation. “We just closed,” the voice said, coolly. “But we’ll still serve you.” My trip to central Washington’s Lake Chelan wasn’t off to a smooth start.

It was late last summer, and a few months earlier the U.S. Department of Treasury had declared the region an American Viticultural Area (granting special land protection and tax incentives, not to mention recognition from the lucrative wine industry). Articles in food and drink mags had poured kerosene on the publicity fire. The tiny 4,000-person town of Chelan was about to explode. More than a dozen wineries now ringed the lake’s 55-mile shoreline. And rumor had it that everyone—from bed-and-breakfast proprietors to boating outfitters—was making bank on the local wine business and its newfound national attention. I had to see it for myself.

But seduced by the Columbia River’s crawl through Wenatchee National Forest—and scenic turnoff opportunities along Highway 97—I had allowed what was supposed to be a three-hour trek from Seattle to stretch into a four-hour, embarrassingly-late-for-dinner trek from Seattle. Fortunately, Chelanites proved to be more accommodating than 
I deserved.

Thirty minutes after calling Wapato Point and letting the voice on the phone guide me to the correct end of Quetilquasoon Road, I was sitting in the closed restaurant’s big empty dining room polishing off a 16-ounce steak with a glass of merlot. The voice belonged to co-owner Ben Williams, who now poured me a second goblet of wine. Head-shaven and muscular, he looked more like a SWAT operative in his black shirt and pants than a maitre d’.

Turns out Williams’s father-in-law is the progenitor of the Lake Chelan wine boom. He planted the first grape vine in the area in 1998 in order to rescue his moribund apple farm from financial ruin, showing neighboring cultivators that the soil could sustain more than Golden Delicious.

Also turns out I was right about my host. He’s a West Point–educated soldier who served in Iraq in 2005 and 2006 as an Army intelligence officer. A military “spook.” A few years after marrying the winemaker’s daughter, Williams ditched the spy game for viticulture. The rumors were true. Everyone was getting into the vino biz in Chelan.  

Woodin Avenue boasts bookstores, cafes, and wine shops.

The next morning sunlight blazed through the sliding glass door of my deck at Campbell’s Resort. The surrounding lake was abuzz with activity. Kids floated on inner tubes. Jet skis growled in the distance. Bikinied women as pale as peeled apples soaked up rays along a thin ribbon of sandy beach.

After devouring eggs Benedict and honey-glazed bacon in the resort’s bustling cafe, I wandered onto Woodin Avenue, the town’s main strip. The asphalt baked under relentless rays—the temperature would reach 107 degrees by midafternoon—and tourists popped in and out of gift shops and wine stores.

A familiar voice called out: “Hey James.” I turned. Ben Williams’s bare pate shined like a silver bullet.

I knew one person in all of Chelan County and I just happened to run into him on the street? I thought of his exploits in military intelligence. Was Ben Williams tracking me? Nah. He’s just a nice guy who wants the world to know his town’s charm. He pointed me toward a bookstore (Riverwalk Books) and a coffee shop (Vogue Liquid Lounge) he thought I’d like, and we parted ways.

The bookstore was small, but had an impressive literary fiction section, and I found a couple edifying volumes on Washington wine. The coffee shop knocked out an Americano on par with espresso bars in Seattle. Nearby storefronts beckoned with the promise of adventure: a chartered boat ride across the lake, a guided horseback tour through the Wenatchee forest. I drained my cup of iced coffee and squinted in the sun. Lake Chelan and I were going to get along just fine.

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