Monthly Archives: March 2012

Oregon Wines

If your travel plans take you to Oregon in summer or fall, 2012, consider a visit to some of its exceptional wine-producing regions.  Said to be one of the most diverse grape-growing and wine-producing areas in the world, Oregon has a variety of elevations and climactic conditions that lead to the creation of an impressive number of wines not usually available for tasting on wine tours elsewhere.

The area with the biggest national distribution is the vast and productive Willamette (pronounced will AM’ et) Valley with such renowned names as King Estates, Amity, etc.  It’s especially known for its Pinots.  But there are half a dozen other Oregon wine regions worth getting to know.  One of my favorites is the Umpqua.

South of Willamette and about 45 miles long and only 1/3 as wide, the Umpqua Valley is actually the Northwest’s oldest wine region.  Commercial wine has been coming out of this fertile oval for about 140 years thanks to what the Southern Oregon Winery Association calls, “multiple ecosystems”.  Google Southern Oregon Winery Association for a detailed map of the Umpqua.

Three relative newcomers are taking Umpqua wines to a higher level.  The cooler north end’s Brandborg produces especially vibrant whites.  The Umpqua’s definitely eclectic mid-valley allows Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards to successfully explore many varietals.  South-end Spangler produces outstanding, award-winning reds.  All have tasting rooms as do most of the other dozen or so wineries of the Umpqua.

In Elkton, Oregon, Brandborg crafts what it calls “Coolest, Cool Climate Varietals”.  Ten years ago Terry and Sue Brandborg became attracted to the Umpqua for what they judged to be the perfect climate for Pinot Noir, now their signature wine.  But Brandborg’s tasting room visitors can now also sip some sensational whites, like their Pinot Gris.

Reustle Prayer Rock’s vineyard is so ideally located that Reustle became the first winery in the US to produce Austria’s complex Grüner Veltliner.  Gloria Reustle believes that wine is best celebrated when accompanied by food and serves delicious cheese wedges and other tasty treats with samples of her impressive wines.  The Reustle family moved to the Umpqua from the New York City area almost eleven years ago.  Since their first production year, 2004, they have been able to prosper by selling their wines only through their club, which Ruth and I joined.   Reustle’s brochure invites, “Come as Strangers, Leave as Friends” and it’s true.

On the outskirts of Roseberg at the south end of the Umpqua, Spangler is becoming one of the best wineries in Oregon.  Pat and Loree Spangler, also on the scene since 2004, have a second tasting room closer to Portland in Newberg, Oregon, and a growing reputation for making what they call big, bold reds from Bordeaux varieties and crafted blends in a place with multiple microclimates.  Multiple awards are resulting.


Australia, Part 27

The West Australian drive from Albany to Margaret River meant spectacular scenery and great attractions.  Only one was so-so.

We traversed farming country on our way to The Valley of the Giants.  The Giants are tingle trees, similar to the redwoods that prosper on the Northern California coast in impressiveness but a different type of tree.  They are eucalypts that grow almost 250 feet high.  Some are up to 600 years old.    The name tingle comes from gently twisting an aboriginal word for red, the color of the timber.  The Giants range is relatively small, only 23 square miles between The Deep and  Bow Rivers about five miles for the ocean.  Walpole Nornalup National Park has a lot of rigorously protected tingles.

Usually described as “the largest buttressing eucalypt”, the tingle is an amazing tree because, despite it enormity, it has a shallow root system that expands the base as the tree ages.  This makes it vulnerable to fire, insects, fungi, and tourists.

Not a serious attraction until a road was built in 1996, the tingles, it was decided, were best protected by restricting people to walkways, not under the trees as one might expect but atop them.  Yes, visitors walk along 6 slightly swaying bridge spans built on seven pylons and thread their way through tingle tree tops.  It’s quite a thrill with an almost Tarzan-like feel though actually quite tame.  It’s no wonder that this area attracts millions of visitors.

On our way to Pemberton we saw a bandicoot, a seriously endanger marsupial, scurry across the road, and our excellent tour guide Gwen got to talking about kangaroos.  She told us about lumpy jaw, a condition that occurs when roos eat bread or biscuits handed over by well-meaning humans.  Rendering them unable to eat grass, the kangaroos die horribly.

This grim fact was followed, as was usual, by a bit of Aussie humor.  Question:  “What’s the worst thing that can happen to an egg in a monastery?’  Answer:  “Out of the frying pan into the friar.”  Sorry.

Pemberton, now a seemingly lifeless town, was once home to the largest steam operated sawmill in the Southern Hemisphere.  A tramway company formed to haul passengers is now a tourist railway that chugs through the forest, stops at no place in particular, and returns to the station.  It wasn’t exactly fun, but the tour guide was delightfully enthused about his railroad.   Kerri trees, the 3rd largest hardwood in the world, were hauled out the forests around Pemberton and sent to Great Britain where they were turned into great ship masts and wharfs.

In nearby Glouster National Park is a very popular attraction, the Glouster Tree, an almost 200 feet high karri that was used as a fire outlook after lightning knocked its top off.  Metal rungs now circling it allow visitors, anyone who wants to try, to climb it.   Among the reasons why I didn’t ease up this very popular attraction was a long line of teens waiting to see how quickly they could make it to the top.

Our next destination was the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse near the town of Augusta. On a truly rugged, way-gorgeous promontory where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet at the most southwestern point of mainland Australia, this 1896 limestone beauty is open to the public.  Most climb to the balcony at 128 feet to see whales.  But it was September, the end of their season, so none were passing by.


Saguaro National Park

There are 4 deserts in the United States–the Great Basin,  Chihuahuan, Mojave and Sonoran.  One of the definitions of desert is “an area with less than 10 inches of rain per year”.   Since deserts cover almost 1/3 of the earth surface, we’re lucky that only two of our 50 states, Nevada and Utah, are mainly desert.  One state has 3 of the 4 since California has the Sonoran, Mojave, and a bit of Great Basin in its Death Valley area.  Arizona, which is thought by many to be a desert state, actually has only one, The Sonoran, which drifts down into Mexico on both sides of the Gulf of California.

What gives The Sonoran its distinction is the saguaro, but it’s only one cactus in what one Red Hills Visitor Center display describes as the “most complex and diverse of the four North American deserts”.   More than 600 plant species live in the Sonoran.  In fact, the cacti most seen in Saguaro National Park are  7 varieties of cholla.  You want to keep your distance from these cuties, especially if they’re labeled with a very ironic name, Teddy Bear.  All seven of the cholla types thrive in Saguaro West.

Saguaro National Park is divided into two sections 30 miles apart on either side of Tucson, Arizona.  Both are fine to visit, especially from late winter to late spring when 10 of the 15 cacti species bloom, not all at the same time, and the heat is not what some would call unbearable.

The larger Saguaro East, the Rincon Mountain District, offers a venerable saguaro forest, an 8 mile one-way drive through it, 128 miles of hiking trails and a Visitor Center.

Saguaro West is in the Tucson Mountains and includes a spectacular 6 mile loop road, the Bajada, through them.   There are also 3 easy nature trails.  One called Cactus Garden is at the especially informative Visitor Center.  My favorite is the Valley View Overlook Trail.

One National Park brochure describes the saguaro as “a multi-storied apartment complex”, an apt metaphor since a dozen birds and bees depend on it for shelter and more.  Several animals like the javelina, a pig-like peccary, feast on its fruit.

Saguaros begin life tenuously under nurse trees like palo verde and mesquite. If they survive, saguaros grow slowly and in spurts influenced by rain.  By its 15th birthday, a typical saguaro is only one foot tall.   Age 50–7 feet.   Age 100–25 feet. If it makes it to 150, it can double that.  The one pictured above is damaged.   For no known reason, its growing tip started to fan out instead of growing upward.   They are called cristate saguaros.

Saguaro National Park is the perfect place to study and admire these silent giants that grow only in the Sonoran Desert.   But they’re just one reason to go there.


The Saguaro

Isla Magdalena, Chile

The best reason to visit Punta Arenas, Chile, as it turned out, was the opportunity to visit a somewhat distant attraction that could only be accessed from Terminal Tres Puentes.

During the brief Southern Patagonian summer, two penguin colonies thrive in the area.  The nearer, Seno Otway, has more than ten thousand breeding pairs.  But this is a tiny village compared to Isla Magdalena, a veritable penguin city accessible only by ferry-boat three times a week on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  We booked through Comapa Turismo, a local agency, and made the trip on December 20.

Out in the middle of the Strait of Magellan, Isla Magdalena was declared a National Monument in 1982.  The 5 hour trip there and back was eminently worth it just to spend just one hour with an estimated 125,000 adult Magellanic pingüinos, the most abundant species in South America.

Many were tending to their adorable and surprisingly large offspring.  The adults arrive in September or October and reside in burrows, which are shallow enough to see inside.  Usually two eggs are laid and both chicks are raised to maturity with mom and dad sharing childcare duties for the first month.  While females nest, males trumpet territorially.   Both sexes waddle around adorably while watching you watch them.  To the delight of everyone, especially the children, plumes of dirt came flying out of holes which were undergoing enlargement.

By April the colony begins to depart, some of the more adventuresome swimming as far north as Rio.  The Magellanic live at sea 5 to 6 months each year.

There are so many penguins on Isla Magdalena that some have had to burrow into the pathway that ends at the highest point on the island where a scenic lighthouse, a National Monument since 1976,  contains a museum.  While interesting, it’s a distraction from the birds.   One display reported that hungry sailors used to gather both eggs and the egg layers for scarce meat.  Penguin steaks.  Yum.

Magellanic Penguins travel in large flocks up and down the coasts of Argentina and Chile, some making it out to the Falkland Islands.   But they never go south to Antarctica, home to 7 other species.

There are 17 to 20 penguin species.  The exact number is disputed.  For example, are the Royal and the Macaroni the same or separate species?   Four breed and nest only on the Antarctic continent and 3 more mainly on nearby islands.  Except for the Emperors, the rest leave Antarctica when autumn comes.

We hated to leave Isla Magdalena for the long trip back to Punta Arenas despite the raw near-summer weather.   One hour with the penguins simply wasn’t enough.


Lake Louise to Jasper

I spent most of today seeking accommodations in Banff-Lake Louise-Jasper.     Ruth and I will be in Alberta with two other couples at the end of August, 2012, and I learned quickly, and stressfully, that rooms are filling up despite a weak economy and high prices.   I lost count of the times I was looking at an expensive prospect carrying this warning ONLY TWO ROOM LEFT AT THIS PRICE!   If you plan to vacation in the Canadian Rockies this coming summer, don’t wait another day to book.

Only someone who hasn’t been there would ask why this is the case.   This is our third trip, and I found a previously written article to remind me why we’re returning. Here’s what I wrote the last time we drove the Icefields Parkway:

At the lower end of this magnificent drive, we took the Lake Louise Sightseeing Gondola up to an Environmental Education Centre.  The view from atop  literally defied description, so I didn’t even try except to note that the sight of Lake Louise from way up there was far more breathtaking than it was standing right next to it with tourists on either side having their pictures taken.

I actually saw two bear cubs scampering by the road on the way to the tram, so I sat down to enjoy the continuously running video about bears in the Centre.   It turned out to be a gripping, no-nonsense documentary about what to do if attacked.  I was suddenly very glad that I hadn’t chased the cubs into the woods for a photo op.

Although we had our choice of open, bubble, or enclosed chair for the fourteen-minute descent back to the chalet-like Lodge of the Ten Peaks below, we risked hypothermia, in mid-summer, by choosing the open so that we could try, and fail, to photograph the scenery.

The gondola ride seemed expensive but was worth it.  When the man in front of me complained about the price compared to Banff’s, the ticket seller smiled and said, “Yes, but our view is better.”  Wow, was she right!

The Icefields Parkway, with more than 100 glaciers in view along the way, takes travelers northwesterly to the end of Banff National Park and then halfway through Jasper National Park to its namesake town.  It was only 143 miles long, but it took us five hours to drive it.  There was some traffic, but trucks were not allowed and the speed limit (56-mph) encouraged gawking and enabled safe pullovers.

The best views are to the left, and stop if you see cars clustered by the roadside.  It means that animals like mountain goats and big horn sheep are nearby.  And finally, don’t set out with only half a tank of gas.

My favorite stops were Athabasca Falls and Bow Summit, the highest place that you can be in a car in a Canadian National Park.

The biggest disappointment was the Columbia Icefield.  It’s not that this 130 square mile river of ice wasn’t impressive.  It was truly a chilling sight and almost up to the road.   But when we pulled over, we realized that belching buses and cavorting tourists were out on The Icefield.   It was kind of like seeing the entire remains of a picnic floating in a crystal lake.

Unlike at Lake Louise, there was a wait to ride the Jasper Tramway.  Attendants were cramming thirty humans into a single car like circus clowns disappearing into a Volkswagen.  Then I watched the crowded car pass over my head on a cable that looked like it couldn’t lift Tinkerbell and disappear up Whistler’s Mountain.  It was all an illusion, of course, and the view atop when we finally got our turn was a glorious tapestry of lakes, jagged peaks, and greenery with the town of Jasper, the only sign of civilization, edging up and around a gentle mountain far below.

Again, don’t wait to book for summer, 2012.