Portland, the perfect city?

What’s to say about Portland, Oregon? It might just be my perfect city. A city that’s not too big, not too small. A city that’s filled with insanely quirky and interesting people. A city filled with endless moments that are indescribable, like where else can you see an annual naked bike ride that attracts thousands of participants? Or perhaps a mini Marilyn Manson act? Only in the PDX baby.

Portland stealing it's twin sister city's Austin's motto

Portland stealing it’s twin sister city’s Austin’s motto

Architecture in Old Town

Architecture in Old Town

Old Town Portland

Old Town Portland near Skidmore Fountain

Portland was my first visit to the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been enchanted. The weather is unlike the northeastern USA with harsh, and cold winters. This winter in Portland it didn’t even snow once! The Pacific Northwest gets temperate winters, with just an abundant amount of rainfall (which contributes to Portland’s amazing greenery in close proximity to the city center). Sure, it may snow in the mountains of Washington and Oregon, but I’ll take a Portland winter over a New York City one any day. One of my favorite spots on my visit was the Pittock Mansion on the inner outskirts of Portland. The drive is beautiful, swerving through steep roads up a mountain, with which you are rewarded with a gorgeous hilltop mansion where you’re able to picnic (we had a delicious vegan picnic with groceries from New Seasons Market) with some views of Portland’s greenery.

Vegan picnic at Pittock Mansion

Vegan picnic at Pittock Mansion

Not to mention there is an incredible variety of food trucks all around the city (dangerous for someone like me). I mean come on…. I had the privilege of trying MAURITIAN food. Who would’ve ever seen that coming? Its cuisine is a mix of Creole, French, Indian, and Chinese. Can you say yum? Be sure to check it out when you come, it’s called Chez Dodo. Portland also has an intimidating amount of organic, farm to table, and vegan/vegetarian foods (of insanely creative varieties). Don’t even get me started on Voodoo Donut! It completely lives up to the hype, luckily I was able to go twice without any insane line. But this place literally has everything, I tried the maple glazed donut, the oreo donut, and the classic voodoo donut which is a voodoo doll complete with a little pretzel which you press into the donut and it bleeds with jelly. They’re also famous for the cock and balls donut, popularized by bachelorette parties in Portland. The aesthetic of the store and the friendly staff, along with the incredible product make this place a classic and just unbeatable. You definitely won’t go hungry in Portland.

Chez Dodo - Mauritian food truck!

Chez Dodo – Mauritian food truck!

Menu at Chez Dodo

Menu at Chez Dodo

Poori on the top, Pulao on the bottom, Delicious all around

Voodoo Donuts!!!!

Voodoo Donuts!!!!

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Voodoo’s interior decor

Creative menu

Creative menu

The selection

The selection

OREO DONUT!!

OREO DONUT!!

Other spots to check out are the N Mississippi Ave and NE Alberta Ave districts, which are filled with quirky shops, tantalizing food carts, outdoor seating restaurants, and much more Portland vibes. Downtown Portland also has Pioneer Square, which is worth a view. Additionally, there’s the Portlandia statue, which is hidden on top of a roof of a building behind some trees, but worth seeking out because it’s much bigger than you’d imagine. It’s also the second largest cast-iron statue in the country after the Statue of Liberty. There’s something almost threatening or menacing about this iron beauty, adding to the charm of Portland.

N Mississippi Avenue

N Mississippi Avenue

N Mississippi Ave

N Mississippi Ave

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Portlandia Statue

Portlandia Statue

Transport in Portland is very easy to navigate with buses, light rail, and ample amount of Car2Go. This was my first experience driving a Car2Go and it was 3 of us, so it was quite humorous all of us squeezing into a smartcar –  felt more like a clown car.

Portland may be in one of the newer states, but it doesn’t mean it’s without its interesting history. Portland was once a den of all types of illegal activity, I learned a lot on a walking tour explaining about underground business and lifestyles in Portland. What’s funny to me is that it seems rather unexpected since the contemporary culture of Portland is very socially conscious, aware, relaxed, and almost wholesome. To see that it was born from a place with a rather sinister history makes it that much cooler to me. The tour was just under 2 hours, you learn a lot about the racist policies that governed Portland and affected its early Chinese, Japanese, and African-American communities. Additionally you learn about the somewhat legal practice of Shanghaiing and how ship captains got away with it, and made profits from it.

One of Portland's many bridges over the Willamette River

One of Portland’s many bridges over the Willamette River

Portland is a prime example of why I’ve been drawn to the culture and the attitudes of the western states. Their ancestors were the opportunists of the time. They rolled with the punches and made their own way in the Wild West. Their laid-back vibe just screams freedom, a healthy antidote to the overworked and sarcastic northeastern culture. I can’t wait to explore the area more.

Have you ever been to Portland? What were your impressions? Recommendations for my next visit?

Portland, Oregon day trips

Portland, Oregon is situated among great hiking and nature options that don’t fail to impress. The Columbia River Gorge is only about 30 minutes away from the city center and the seaside is about 90 minutes. I was able to accomplish both in one very-long-but-so-worth-it kind of day.

First up was the Gorge. After you pass Troutdale, the road goes almost right along the Columbia River which affords great views of the gorge to your right, and Washington State to your left. There are many state parks and recreation areas abutting the landscape. There was one that I didn’t visit but found particularly unexpected was Rooster Rock State Park. At this park there are clothing optional beaches and even a gay cruising area, not something I would’ve imagined along a river in Oregon with the Lewis & Clark insignia; but that’s the best part of the Pacific Northwest – it’s full of surprises.

View of Multnomah Falls from the road. the greenery!

View of Multnomah Falls from the road. the greenery!

As for the rest of the Lewis & Clark State Park areas, it’s filled with gorgeous scenic viewpoints, waterfalls, creeks, and trails. Thanks to the abundant rainfall in this part of the country, these are the greenest greens that I’ve ever seen in the USA. I’m sure every Oregon teenager is sick to death of hearing about Lewis & Clark thanks to school field trips, but I thought it was interesting having history meet with nature. Be sure to check out Multnomah Falls, the tallest waterfall in the gorge (this area is also the wettest part of the gorge, bring a jacket!). The gorge also has a lot of fun hikes for all experience levels and a great viewpoint at the Vista House.

Lower part of the falls

Lower part of the falls

Hiking by a creek

Hiking by a creek

Majestic waterfalls everywhere

Majestic waterfalls everywhere

The hubby, my friend Emily who hosted us, and myself

The hubby, my friend Emily who hosted us, and myself

Being silly at the Vista Point

Being silly at the Vista Point

Columbia River Gorge from above

Columbia River Gorge from above

The Oregon coast is a quick 90 minute drive from Portland, and it’s the scenic route. Shortly after leaving Beaverton the highway becomes a two lane road through some gorgeous farmland leading up to the ocean. The best part is that you can’t tell the ocean is coming until you’re practically on top of it. We chose to visit Cannon Beach and Astoria, which are both famous movie locations! The Goonies was shot at both, and Kindergarten Cop was shot in Astoria. This was probably wasted on me seeing as I haven’t seen either! However, Cannon Beach was just about the most adorable beach town I’ve ever seen. We visited during low tide, and there was what seemed like a massive jellyfish genocide on the beach. The walk was really long from the landing to the water, and the whole beach was strewn with dead jellyfish. The water was absolutely freezing; it almost reminded me of Maine. The coastline isn’t craggy though, and it almost appears to go on forever. The scenery of Haystack Rock alongside the misty air and clear sand made it a very pretty sight. In town we went to a kitschy 50s style candy store called The Picnic Basket. Their selection is overwhelming but some of the highlights were the Tabasco-flavored chocolate, flavored crickets, and the softest fudge I’ve ever had in my life (my favorite being the cookie dough fudge). The staff was really humorous and put up with us trying a sample of about 9 different fudges, definitely worth a visit.

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach at low tide

Seaside homes in Cannon Beach

Seaside homes in Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock, made famous by the Goonies

Haystack Rock, made famous by the Goonies

The Picnic Basket, Cannon Beach

The Picnic Basket, Cannon Beach

Being silly in the Picnic Basket

Being silly in the Picnic Basket

Next we drove up to Astoria for some dinner while it was approaching dusk. Astoria is somewhere I’ve always wanted to go because of the way it looks on a map, and since Astoria is one of my favorite areas in Queens. All you need is a little curiosity to find something special. Astoria has some pretty buildings and a small downtown area. We decided on having a meal at Buoy Beer Company on the water. It is situated on a wooden dock, and below the dock there were some pieces of wood connecting the beams, and this huge pack of these sea lions were relaxing and barking in clear sight from the dock. Inside the restaurant there was a section of floor made of glass where the sea lions were also chilling underneath. Isn’t that just exactly what you would picture out of a Pacific Northwest coastal experience? To just add to the preconceived notion, our waitress was this very soft spoken Alaskan lady whose soothing voice could sell you bath products blind. The food was absolutely delectable, the vibe was super relaxed and enjoyable, and the beers delicious and local. I had the habanero oyster deviled eggs which were flavorful, and the local specialty: the baked salmon and SALMON JERKY. Not only was it the freshest salmon I’ve ever eaten, but what a quirky and unexpected choice (this was also my first time having jerky).

Baked salmon and salmon jerky!

Baked salmon and salmon jerky!

Astoria architecture

Astoria architecture

Art can be found anywhere, especially the streets. Thank you Astoria

Art can be found anywhere, especially the streets. Thank you Astoria

She <3's Ms. Pacman!

She <3’s Ms. Pacman!

Sea lions resting under the pier (sorry for the glare from the glass)

Sea lions resting under the pier (sorry for the glare from the glass)

Have you been to the Oregon coast or the Columbia River gorge? What were some of your favorite experiences?

St. Louis Part 2

The friendliness of the locals I met in St. Louis was nearly unprecedented. I couchsurfed with a couple in Lafayette Square and I really got to experience what the locals do there. STL has tons of really cute local spots. In the Benton Park area I got to see some of the houses and the park, and this one bar called Venice Café. It was reminiscent of the ruin pubs in Budapest in the sense that there are a lot of found items creating an assault-on-the-senses vibe filled with colorful and wacky installations. It’s a huge quirk-fest. There’s a great outdoor space and live music there as well, a truly remarkable local establishment.

One of our couchsurfing hosts Megan being silly with a concrete

One of our couchsurfing hosts Megan being silly with a concrete

Outside Venice Cafe

Outside Venice Cafe

All seeing eye at Venice Cafe

All seeing eye at Venice Cafe

Have a slice of brain birthday cake

Have a slice of brain birthday cake

Street art at Venice Cafe

Street art at Venice Cafe

We ended up having a bit of an all-nighter with our hosts which resulted in their friend opening his sporadically in-use speakeasy for our visit. Their friend Dick has a legit speakeasy in his basement that was used during prohibition; it was a piece of history. Everyone was really friendly and open about sharing what it meant to be from St. Louis. Dick even showed us his classic TV from the 1960s which he held onto for the speakeasy (unfortunately pictures cannot do this experience any justice).

The variety of food is also very impressive in St. Louis. Areas to check out for this are the Grove and Cherokee St. You can find anything in this city! I passed through Afghani, Mexican, Nicaraguan, Nepali, Peruvian, Italian, German, Japanese, you name it! I can attest that you can get an authentic Mexican meal for a good price at La Vallesana on Cherokee St. Good prices and ample outdoor area, alongside the oozing delicious and authentic Mexican cuisine makes this place a winner, even to high New Yorker standards. For a taste of some awesome deep dish pizza check out Black Thorn Pub where you can get behemoth and spicy deep dishes and play shuffleboard while the pizza is cooking. Who could forget some St. Louis specialties? Ted Drewes’ cannot be missed for its frozen custard. It is lovingly referred to as concretes because if you stick the spoon in it and put it upside your spoon won’t fall out! It draws a lot of Route 66 fans since it’s along the route. Nearby, there’s Gooey Louie which is famous for their extra buttery mini-cakes, which you could probably only handle one per sitting; you be the judge.

Gooey butter cake

Gooey butter cake

Horchata and other beverage at La Vallesana

Horchata and other beverage at La Vallesana

Amazing shrimp burrito at La Vallesana

Amazing shrimp burrito at La Vallesana

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Waiting in line to get some concretes at Ted Drewes

Ted Drewes' right off Route66

Ted Drewes’ right off Route66

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Concretes!!

Other famous things to come out of St. Louis include: 7Up, Nelly, Maya Angelou, Sheryl Crow, Chuck Berry, Yogi Berra, Andy Cohen, Panera (which is locally known as St. Louis Bread Company or “Bread Co.”), Miles Davis, Jon Hamm, TS Eliot, and Tennessee Williams, among many others.

St. Louis Bread Co!! It exists

St. Louis Bread Co!! It exists

I found St. Louis to be filled to the brim with surprises and charming treasures. It’s a city dying to be explored. Have you been to St. Louis? What are some of your favorite places or experiences?

Another lovely surprise – St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri is an interesting city at the crossroads of a few regions. Is it Midwestern? Southern? Great Plains? The general consensus is that it’s a Midwestern city, and you know what that means….good food and good beer! Tons of beers come from St. Louis (some good others maybe not so much). Anheuster-Busch, the largest brewing company in the country, is responsible for the births of Budweiser, Busch, Natural Ice, Natural Light, and Michelob. Other microbrews that were delicious were Schlafly and Urban Chestnut; but there are many others. Urban Chestnut Brewery is right in the Grove area with a very ample space to drink and unwind, some of it outdoors.

Gateway Arch

Gateway Arch

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Where the infamous Dred Scott decision occurred, being one of the causes of the American Civil War.

St. Louis also has wonderful architecture, including the plethora of Victorian style homes in the Lafayette Square area, the are in which I stayed. The streets are lined with gorgeous colorful houses, a series of gardens, and a square as its centerpiece (which happens to be the first city park in the country west of the Mississippi River). The houses built during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Forest Park are extravagant and beautiful also.

Lafayette Square architecture

Lafayette Square architecture

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

In the downtown area, the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse cannot be missed. However, an attraction you might not know of is the City Museum. It may have an ordinary name, but it’s an extraordinary experience. It isn’t really easy to describe in words, but it almost seems nostalgic to a time of childlike exploration. It’s an attraction that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. This place has mazes, tunnels, ball pits, slides, a funhouse among much more. It’s all made of found items and it’s in a reclaimed space of a former shoe factory. This place could easily keep you busy for 3-4 hours. They also conveniently have restaurants on-site for when you work up an appetite.  It’s a true marvel to the city and a phenomenal example of a local business.

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Outdoor obstacle course

Outdoor obstacle course

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Our host on one of the many slides

Our host on one of the many slides

Finally, there is a marvelous amount of street art in the Grove area. This is probably some of the best graffiti that I’ve ever seen outside of San Francisco, NYC, and Berlin. The Grove is the gayborhood of St. Louis; it’s got a lot of restaurants and bars down the strip, many with their own personal business street art.

Welcome to the Grove

Welcome to the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Famous graffiti artist in STL - his signature is the one eyed face, it's all over the city.

Famous graffiti artist in STL – his signature is the one eyed face, it’s all over the city.

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Have you been to St. Louis? How was your experience there?

Chattanooga – a lovely surprise

Would you go to Chattanooga, Tennessee? Most people might not consider it. But that’s too bad, because it’s a beautiful city. I visited a few weeks ago awhile there was a deep fog descended on the whole city, it was really eerie but, in a way, mystical.

Back in the 1960s it was dubbed ‘the dirtiest city in America’ and it was shamed into cleaning up and revitalizing its downtown. When I saw it, I honestly couldn’t tell at all because it was really neat and in order. Even though the downtown was pretty empty, Chattanooga was making use of its space. The empty office buildings were hosts to local art installations, turning inactivity into opportunity.

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Chattanooga has some very nice local spots. For southern food and barbeque, try Sugar’s Ribs downtown location. The chili, brisket, mac’n cheese, and grilled okra are all winners. Don’t forget my personal favorite…the sweet tea! Did I mention that there are unlimited refills?! This place is exactly where you want to go for local flavor, also because they frequently have live music.

Right across the street there’s an adorable cupcake shop called Cupcake Kitchen. They’ve got various interesting flavors such as key lime pie, red velvet, cookie dough, and s’mores (which I tried and it was delicious).

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Across the Tennessee River from downtown there’s a really lively area filled with all kinds of interesting bars and restaurants. Along the river there’s Coolidge Park, a beautiful city park complete with carousel, greenery, riverboat, and awesome river views. From here you can walk onto the pedestrian-friendly Walnut Street Bridge for a scenic view of the park and downtown.

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Other attractions include the Chattanooga aquarium (which is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world) and Ruby Falls, my personal favorite. Ruby Falls is located deep inside Lookout Mountain, aptly located in a mountain overlooking the city. Those who decide to go are awarded with scenic mountaintop views, an incline railway, hand-gliding, and the tallest underground waterfall in the world. Unfortunately it was too foggy to enjoy the scenic view, but Ruby Falls made up for it. To see it, you enter an elevator that takes you underground further than the height of the Empire State Building. After, you hike about 30 minutes to get to the falls. It’s incredible that it was discovered so many years ago without the technology we have today. On the way you pass dozens of bizarre stalagmite and stalactite formations, all with creative and humorous names. When you arrive at the falls, they light up with different colors to view in its splendor. You can just barely get the entire waterfall in a photo if you crotch down. Be sure to bring a jacket! It gets cold down there.

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Foggy scenic view

Foggy scenic view

“Cigar leaves” stalactite

Cave innards

Cave innards

Lastly, for a drink in a spooky vibe, much like from an episode of the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks, choose Lamar’s. The setting is in a motel that seems abandoned from the outside. There are strange rules for conduct, a 25 year old age minimum, and some of the strangest service I’ve ever seen. A bonafide you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of experience. You pass through a dark hallway to get to the bar in the back, which has a creepy dimmed light, making for a supernatural vibe. The only things lit are a crest of arms illuminating behind the bar and a jukebox radiating blue and pink light. The crowd is mainly friendly older black gentlemen, which makes for a truly unique and local experience.

Bar and vibes in Lamar's

Bar and vibes in Lamar’s

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar's

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar’s

Have you been to Chattanooga? What were your impressions? Is there a small city that struck you as a lovely surprise?

Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

My apologies readers, I had a busy week of travel and didn’t have the chance to post. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Washington, D.C. to attend the cherry blossom festival for my first time.

Washington Monument and cherry blossoms

Washington Monument and cherry blossoms

It all started in 1912 when the mayor of Tokyo bestowed a gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees to the city of Washington. The festival is famous nationwide, and I’ve wanted to go for years. On top of that, I happened to visit Macon, Georgia a few weeks previous which boasts the largest cherry blossom festival in the world, and they weren’t in bloom yet (even though it was projected to be), so it was that much more satisfying.

Enjoying the cherry blossoms

Enjoying the cherry blossoms

The festival takes place primarily around the edges of the famed Tidal Basin in the National Mall with excellent views of the Washington and Jefferson Memorials surrounded by radiant pink blossoms. Unfortunately, there are swarms of people so you can’t enjoy it peacefully. However, the weather was really nice so a stroll through the blossoms and the crowds around the Tidal Basin really is worth the visit.

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin

There are a lot of events that go on there including a kite festival, parade, paddle-boat rides, and evening lantern walks; making it fun for all visitors. When planning a visit it can be tricky, since it all depends on the warm weather for the blossoms to bloom. Since this was a rough winter in the northeast USA, they bloomed very late into the festival. This might have influenced the big crowd of people who came on the peak weekend I was there. Overall, it is an experience that everyone should try once, whether in Washington or elsewhere (I’ve got my eyes on you Korea and Japan).

Group shot

Group shot

My other passport

What’s an unpleasant but necessary last minute thing when planning certain international trips? Your vaccinations. Last year I went to the travel vaccination center in preparation for my trip to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I got the Typhoid vaccine which is good for 3 years. I also got the Hepatitis A shot, which, if you get a booster shot after 6 months up until a year, I am now covered for life (I got mine yesterday). Now for any and all upcoming trips to Latin America, Asia, and Africa, I am one step closer to being prepared.

Passport & vaccine passport

Passport & vaccine passport

When traveling into the developing world, sometimes you need proof of certain vaccines even to get into the country. This can all be tracked by your very own vaccination passport. Getting shots is no one’s idea of a good time, but being prepared traveling into the developing world is very necessary for your health. Mosquitoes are the bane of the existence of many when it comes to nasty airborne disease. The other main concern of course is clean drinking water. To protect against these things be sure to research thoroughly which vaccines you need before entering a country. Also, make sure to do your research before you visit your physician to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

After a month in the island of Hispaniola, I was extremely grateful and humbled by the positive attitudes of many of the people who deal with hardship daily. You’ll never realize how much of a privilege clean drinking water is until you’re denied the option. More to come on this trip in a future post.

Have you gotten all your shots? Planning on a trip which requires one? Would love to hear from you!