Coffee: The New San Francisco Treat

Coffee is a way of life for us here at Battle Mountain. Many a night, Julian and I lie awake, excited for the morning when we can savor a wonderful cup of joe. But it’s not just simply the thought of the steam warming the face or the bold, earthy liquid flowing through the digestive tract, warming the heart and awakening the mind. And it’s not about the caffeine… not always, at least. It’s the whole cafe experience that goes with this morning ritual, from ordering it (even from the crankiest and snobbiest of baristas) to taking that first comforting sip. Here, we attempt to give you a practical and thorough guide to San Francisco’s most famous coffee brands, spots, and trends. The city’s coffee scene has quickly grown in just under the last decade, especially since the launch of local favorites like Blue Bottle and Ritual back in 2005.

Below, Julian covers 10 local coffees. He evaluates each brand by flavor, body, and acidity. As the scene continues to blossom, this is by no means a comprehensive guide, but a trusty snapshot into the great variety of coffee options available in the City by the Bay. Battle Mountain are based around the Russian Hill and TenderNob neighborhoods, so first up is our nearby pick for the ultimate coffee snob experience: Contraband Cafe.

Coffee! Coffee!

Contraband Coffee Bar on Larkin Street in Russian Hill

Contraband Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.2   Acidity: 8   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 6 
Contraband is on the forefront of coffee in the Bay Area, serving beans from Latin America to New Guinea to Yemen — not typically your standard fare. Contraband makes coffee a science, even employing a precision coffee brewing contraption called the Blossom, designed by a former Apple designer/NASA engineer, which specifically calibrates for a “more nuanced” cup of coffee that offers less astringency and bitterness, and more sweetness — be prepared to pay a pretty penny for this selection, though. Overall, Contraband serves quality coffee that is acidic and generally strong. To our taste buds, though, the beans seems “over-roasted” because of the complex and wild nature of their selection. I give Contraband a 7.2, an above-average score that also takes into consideration price and presentation.

Chromatic Coffee at Iron and Steam Pop-up Bar on Polk Street.

Chromatic Coffee at Iron and Steam Pop-up Bar on Polk Street in Lower Nob Hill

Chromatic Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.0   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9 
We stumbled across Iron & Steam Espresso Bar and were dazzled by the 60-year-old Gaggia lever machine, pictured above. Chromatic Coffee, based in San Jose, is the bean of choice at Iron & Steam, which specializes in espressos and potent Americanos. Chromatic coffee sticks to the back of your throat and penetrates your digestive system in a powerful way. The taste and flavor are very strong with bold hints of cacao bean — it’s almost as if you’re drinking rich, raw hot chocolate. Amanda, the Barista at Iron & Steam, informed us of how the tiger mottling effect comes from the crema, the thin and dark golden-brown layer atop the espresso shot. This crema contains emulsified oils, created from the machine’s high pressure, which disperses gases within the liquid. Much of the shot’s aromatic and nuanced flavors is pronounced in the crema. Overall, I was impressed with Chromatic Coffee and their devotion to unique singe-serve coffees from ethically sourced beans. It may be worth a visit to Santa Clara to check out their home base.

Ritual

Ritual Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission

Ritual Coffee | Overall Rating: 8   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8   Aftertaste: 7.7
Another popular Bay Area brand, Ritual defines coffee as a “delicious, sweet, and complex fruit.” Ritual’s coffee has bite and is generally on the more bitter and acidic side of the coffee spectrum. Ritual uses fair trade beans from Latin America and Africa, where they work intimately with their coffee bean producers. Ritual prides itself on craftsmanship by utilizing a Hario V60 pour-over station to exquisite effect. I’m generally a classic dark roast guy, but I appreciate the way Ritual specializes in light roasted single origin coffee beans and also features “seasonal” espresso beans. The Ritual espresso or macchiato has an expressive and covertly nutty quality that perks you up with the right amount of acidity, flavor, and body. Ritual were one of the pioneers of the artisan coffee movement in SF, and their passion and social consciousness has contributed much to their success..

Sight Glass Cafe in SOMA, San Francisco

Sightglass Cafe on 7th Street in SOMA

Sightglass Coffee | Overall Rating: 7.5   Acidity: 8.9   Flavor: 8.3   Aftertaste: 6.9
Sightglass has carved its own space in a more desolate part of SOMA. If you like Blue Bottle (mentioned below), you’ll probably love Sightglass. The cafe’s grand industrial space is wonderful and ideal for working. I usually opt for the Colombian coffee called Finca Las Florestales that they describe as having “sweet flavors of grape juice, mango, and guava … complemented by a syrupy body and pluot-like acidity.” This acidity is what gives the coffee its brightness and, more significantly, its liveliness. Sightglass also offers beans from Latin America and Africa. The acidity and berry notes are the major components to Sightglass’ specialty light roast, so as a fan of darker roasts I typically prefer a bolder brew.

Blue Bottle | Overall Rating: 7.9   Acidity: 8.7   Flavor: 7.3   Aftertaste: 7.6
Blue Bottle has become an institution in the Bay Area. The company originated in Oakland, Calif., where its founder was sick of ubiquitous “grande eggnog lattes and double skim pumpkin-pie macchiatos.” The name is inspired by Central Europe’s first coffee house (The Blue Bottle) — an awesome story; read here. It’s important to note that Blue Bottle serves beans that’ve been roasted within the last 48 hours. The coffee is strong and vibrant and the body is nice and full, with a clean yet acidic finish. As referenced above, their signature light roast has potent berry notes that may turn off fans of darker roasts. Still, Blue Bottle continues to grow, even expanding to New York. Overall, their coffee is worth the typically cheaper price tag, especially for those craving more acidic and fruity tones.

Paramo Coffee

Paramo Coffee in Embarcadero

Paramo Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.6   Acidity: 6.5   Flavor: 9.3   Aftertaste: 8.3
We found this lovely cafe on a walk back from Justin Herman Plaza, in an alley near 4 Embarcadero and the Hyatt, with open outdoor seating and great people watching. One of the newer coffees of the area, Paramo was founded by Robert Myers, one of the founders of Highwire Coffee Roasters (mentioned below) and Modern Coffee in the East Bay, and Gabriel Boscana, a former buyer at Sightglass Coffee. I met barista Nicole, who explained the founders’ mission to offer a more balanced and less acidic cup of coffee over the trendier brews of the area, like Blue Bottle. Interestingly, acidity isn’t about the pH, but the disagreeable flavors that crop up from compounds produced through bad roasting, lousy brewing, and overheld coffee. I had the “Shadowplay” java coffee, which was creamy, bold, and full of body. Paramo features five single-origin coffees that all represent a different flavor profile. This is definitely a place for dark roast fans, and a great addition to the local coffee scene.

Four Barrel Cafe in the Mission loves playing records especially classic rock.

Four Barrel Cafe on Valencia Street in the Mission shows off an impressive vinyl collection

Four Barrel | Overall Rating: 8.7   Acidity: 7.0   Flavor: 9.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Four Barrel’s home in the Mission is complete with roasters, vintage machines, and even turntables. Coffee and records go well together — and Four Barrel’s vintage ambiance goes well with their old-fashioned roasting methods. The cafe offers no Wi-Fi, which means tables are thankfully free of Macs. This is definitely a place to enjoy a great cup of coffee over a good conversation. A Four Barrel cup of coffee is clean, sweet, and complex, with just the right amount of acidity. Four Barrel has a diverse selection of beans that span the globe; I’m partial to the Latin American varieties. They pride themselves on having an “artisan” approach. As it says on their site, “We hold our roasters’ dedication to the constantly changing variable of coffee in high regard.” This means they’re coffee is always smooth, bold, and goes down easy.

Highwire Coffee at Craftsman and Wolves.

Highwire Coffee at Craftsman and Wolves on Valencia Street in the Mission

Highwire Coffee | Overall Rating: 8.2   Acidity: 5.8   Flavor: 8.7   Aftertaste: 8.1
Highwire Coffee is based in Oakland, however it is available at Craftsman and Wolves in the Mission area of San Francisco. Highwire Roasters proclaims to “love the guts in a cup of fully developed coffee” and “the subtleties that speak to its place of origin.” The core espresso blend I had was full of body, smooth, and perhaps the least acidic coffee I’ve ever had in the Bay Area. Highwire offers darker roasts that are more akin to a typical cup of coffee found in many European countries. However, their philosophy is that light, medium, and dark roasts are all delicious in their own special way. Still, their blends are typically more balanced and less acidic than those favored among the “third wave coffee” scene, led by Blue Bottle and others. Highwire is also available in Oakland at Nido and Hive, the Place to Bee.

Philz at Van Ness, San Francisco

Philz Coffee on Van Ness Avenue near Civic Center

Philz Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.1  Acidity: 6.5   Flavor: 6.7   Aftertaste: 5.7
Philz has also become quite an institution in the San Francisco Bay Area. They pride themselves on their artisanal and high quality coffees, and the unique experience of ordering the coffee itself. While you typically pay first for coffee at most cafes, Philz has reversed the process. At Philz, the experience is friendlier and funkier than many of its contemporaries. The coffee is made to order, and the menu can be quite intimidating for newbies, especially with wacky names like Jacobs Wonderbar. You can request a roast, flavor, and sweetness that is exactly to your liking. But a major drawback here is that they don’t offer espresso — a purist coffee lover’s delight. Still, Philz has mastered the art of the fresh pour-over coffee. They feature several different blends, from light to medium to dark roasted, and even offer multiple decaf options, along with flavors like mint mojito. What makes Philz unique is that you can carefully craft and tweak your coffee until you’re 100% satisfied — which often just seems to be more of a headache after the already overwhelming ordering process.

Bicycle Coffee | Overall Rating: 6.8   Acidity: 7    Flavor: 8.9    Aftertaste: 8
Bicycle Coffee, based in Oakland, is readily available throughout the Bay Area, especially at funkier alternatives like Revolution Cafe in the Mission and Another Cafe near Nob Hill. Bicycle Coffee, whose beans come mainly from Central America, is dependably smooth. To a newbie, it may seem moderately strong since some medium roasts can be bitter. However, the beans vary seasonally and every cup of coffee depends on your barista, too. The round, oak notes and caramel hints dominate in a typical cup of Bicycle coffee, a reliable morning pick-me-up.

With those 10 options, I feel lucky to live in such a vibrant and happening town for coffee, especially since this scene has only come about in the last decade. And I’m happy to see a recent return to more dark roast coffees in the area. It’s important to note that the darker the brew, the higher the coffee is in beneficial phytonutrients, which not only help in the carmelization process but also increase antioxidant activity. All that said, in the end, all we desire is a fine, reliable cup of coffee to start our day. Fortunately, San Francisco offers a plethora of choices. Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which I will review international brands, featuring powerhouses like Nespresso and Illy.

Tahiti’s Tantalizing Treasures, Pt. 1

Tahiti is France’s most majestic of mistresses. It only needs to sit there prettily, titillating with its simplicity, its shocking blues, its serene waters, its verdant ground split and dotted along the South Pacific in 118 brilliant pieces. This is a land where even the fish seem to jump so close to the shoreline as to get a glimpse of its beauty. Even the word “Tahiti” sounds wickedly exotic to the English tongue.

The Moorea palm lean above crystal-clear aquamarine waters

The palms bow down to the breathtaking crystal-clear waters of Moorea.

But is there substance behind this breathtaking paramour? Is it all a façade dressed up in little grass shacks and perfectly tilted palms, an ugly reality all wrapped tidily in aquamarine lagoons? Like many precious islands around the globe, there is a dark history here, but while the native Polynesians of Tahiti certainly face an identity crisis — an unfortunate byproduct of any territory fallen victim to colonization — they remain (to our eyes, at least) peaceful and patient, with a puckish sense of humor, too. They’re easy-going but not lazily so. “Sustainable living,” meanwhile, is simply just living in Tahiti — it’s surviving off the land, respecting it, and thriving with it. It’s combining just-caught fish with milk from just-plucked coconuts and turning it into one of the world’s greatest culinary treasures (aka poisson cru).

Fresh "coco" by the beach

Fresh “coco” by the beach

That said, the French influence inevitably looms, not just in the language spoken, but in the tiny details, too — like locals bicycling down a busy street with a half-dozen freshly baked baguettes nimbly placed in hand, or a can of foie gras innocently placed in the refrigerated section of the supermarche. Ask a French person and they will say, “This is France.” To us, it was simply the paradise a postcard has no right trying to sum up.

Tahitian Sunset

Tahitian Sunset

GETTING THERE / ACCOMMODATION:
The flight to Tahiti is really kind of frightening, in an existential sort of way — this is the case when flying over any large body of water, but the Pacific is an especially terrifying beast. It makes you truly want to smack lips with any tiny speck of solid ground you just so happen to land on in the middle of it all. Those who only go so far as Hawaii (from the U.S.) are missing out on another extra three hours of airtime — and, honey, is it worth it. Eight hours after wheels up in L.A., half asleep and tripping down the stairs of the great jumbo-jet, the sun’s rage will quickly slap you right across the face. You are, after all, just south of the equator — the sun’s most favorite residence. A lei made of fresh flowers and herbs soon graces your neck and the buzz of excitement starts to simmer down to an ecstatic calm. Tahiti — she grabs you right from the get-go.

Hangin' Loose in Moorea

Hangin’ Loose in Moorea

Our shuttle took us to Le Meridien — a resort roughly 30 minutes from French Polynesia’s capital city of Papeete — where we would be staying for the next five nights. (Had we not found an amazing Travelzoo deal that included both flight and hotel, we may have opted for one of the pensions that dot the island — a great choice for budget-minded travelers.) We were greeted by the hotel’s lush grounds and expansive lobby, which offers you a sweet peek of what lies ahead — a grand sand-bottomed pool and, even further out, those renowned bungalows sitting so cutely atop a glistening lagoon. Our receptionist was friendly and efficient (Tino, in particular was helpful during our entire stay), and though we were too early to check in to our room, we were welcome to lounge by the pool and reclaim any valuable sleep lost on the flight.

Beach Daze at Le Meridien

Beach Daze at Le Meridien

Our garden-view room was big and spacious, with a large bathroom and a tub fit for a Tahitian king. But it’s Le Meridien’s beachfront location that is its main allure. The beach may be small, but it’s the near 80-degree water you’d rather be sprawled out in anyway.  [PRO TIP: Water shoes are essential for any beach in Tahiti, in order to avoid being stabbed by coral or getting stung by the infamous "stone fish," which can land you in the hospital.]

Navigating around bungalows, coral, and multi-colored fish

Navigating around bungalows, coral, and multi-colored fish

If you have an exceptionally fat pocketbook, splurge for a bungalow. We only got a tour of one, but milked that as long as we could…

Le Meridien Beach & Bungalows

Le Meridien’s beach & bungalows

Stay tuned for Pt. 2, which will discuss the food (lots of baguettes!, fresh seafood, and the only affordable dinner on the island: the “roulottes,” or food trucks), a day-trip around Tahiti, and a visit to the unspoiled neighboring island of Moorea.

 

Rethinking Ukraine

On the heels of change and rapid-fire revolution in Crimea, I’ve recently been thinking about a trip I took to Ukraine back in 2011. I was mostly in Odessa, located on the Black Sea near Crimea, the spot currently causing frustration among the U.S. government, which is bringing back a sense of “Cold War” tension. The situation there has me looking back at my experience in the country in a different light.

Staring down Lenin at a beautifully adorned park in Arcadia near the Black Sea.

Staring down Lenin at a beautifully adorned park in Arcadia near the Black Sea.

Ukraine — from its architecture to its food to its dialects — was how I imagined Russia to be. Traveling with a friend, who was able to speak conversational Russian to most of the locals probably made this seem even more plausible. Together, we saw Lenin memorials and Soviet-era symbols and met amicable Russians; but even the locals we met spoke Russian, claiming that the Ukrainian and Russian languages were similar enough. With the current political controversy, I wanted to research more about the Ukrainian/Russian connection. The media’s portrayal of Russia’s recent reclamation of Crimea makes the move seem somewhat out of the blue, aggressive, and imperialistic. But looking at this situation objectively, you have to go quite a ways back: Kiev, the modern capital of Ukraine, is often referred to as a mother of Russian Cities, in other words, the founding place of Russian civilization. And while the land has seen many conflicts over the centuries, the country of Ukraine as we know it today has only been independent since 1991. That’s only a little over two decades, and during my visit there, I could definitely see and feel how inextricably linked it still was to Russia.
Odessa Waterfront

Strength in powerful babies at the Odessa seafront.

But as I write this, it’s the Ukrainian people who are stuck in the middle of this crisis, who are being used by each influencing side. There are even rumors that both sides may be funding militias and promoting instability. The Ukrainians I got to know were generally stoic and reserved — well, aside from the night I made the mistake of asking for additional cheese on a pasta dish at Odessa’s Club and got charged almost $25 for it and was escorted to the nearest ATM! Still, overall, I felt safe there, which makes it even harder for me to believe this is the same region where a violent revolution has recently taken place.

My time in Ukraine was filled with fun memories, so I wanted to show a more peaceful side to this wonderful country. Here are a few pictures from the trip:

Pink

More stunning architectural beauty!

The Lada

Posing with the Russian Lada, the mythical and infamous symbol of past Soviet-era cars.

Stern

Stern and stark memorials to yesteryear.

Gothic

Exquisite Gothic architecture decked out with gargoyles.

CCCP

A colorful shirt, glamorizing the Soviet days, boldly on display in another main street store. (Pre-2014)

Fancy cars on a tree lined street in Odessa.

Fancy cars on a tree lined street in Odessa.

Badges galore!

Soviet-era pins and badges near one of the main tourist streets in Odessa.

Trip Daze: Calistoga’s Mud, Wine, and Good Times

A diorama of Calistoga's heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

A diorama of Calistoga’s heyday, from the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Ok, I admit that my knowledge of the town of Calistoga pretty much stopped at its sparkling mineral water line — a favorite purchase for a refreshing gas station treat. And though I’ve driven through the Napa Valley town on numerous occasions — always noting “Dr. Wilkinson’s Mud Baths” and other signs touting spa bliss — other wine locales in the area had managed to always lure me away. So when researching a quick weekend trip from San Francisco, Julian and I had decided to bypass the more populated Sonoma and Napa and try out Calistoga, home to hot springs, vineyards, and old tourist destinations (or traps depending on how much of a geological nerd you may be) like the Petrified Forest and the Old Faithful Geyser of California (okay, that’s definitely a trap with its sad petting zoo as its best attempt to entice the kiddies).

ACCOMMODATION:

The Sunburst Calistoga
We had come across a new hotel, the Sunburst Calistoga. Its sleek yet retro décor — and, better yet, its promise of mineral water pools — made it a favorable accommodation choice. (Not to mention the Living Social deal I found just a few days after our initial Internet discovery of the place.) Turns out the Sunburst advertised discounted prices across every major deal site — including Groupon and Travelzoo — so we arrived at the motel-like structure on the edge of town to a fully packed house. This meant service was slow and the pools crowded (so much for a relaxing dip in the mineral pools — which smelled more of chlorine than anything else). The Sunburst could benefit from a tighter pool policy (don’t allow outsiders, for example), another employee at the front desk during peak times, and a more robust and fresh breakfast spread). But overall the rooms were comfortable, and the brightly colored, ’50s-hinting décor cute and functional. The location was ideal, and the price was right — especially for Napa Valley — at just $130 a night. A stay during the week may be your best bet here.

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

Lounging in the lobby of the Sunburst Calistoga

MUST-DO’s:

Tamber Bey Vineyards
Down the road just a few blocks from the Sunburst is Calistoga’s main drag, dotted with olive oil shops, tasting rooms, restaurants, and cafes. We recommend stopping by the Visitors Center at 1133 Washington Street to get discounts on attractions like wineries and hot springs, and great advice from the helpful staff. Our best find here was a 2 for 1 tasting coupon at the spacious and serene Tamber Bey Vineyards — one of the highlights of our trip. Their fairly new location (relocated from St. Helena late in 2013) is set amongst an expansive 22-acre equestrian paradise. Grabbing a sunny seat outside means you’ll find yourself flanked by horse stables, but even if you’re not the equine type (me, not so much), this never distracts from the tasting experience, which they make truly comfortable here. Splurge and get the cookie and wine pairings (it’s worth the extra $10). The cookies are made by a grad from the nearby Culinary Institute of America, and expertly paired with the wine selections.

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Tamber Bey Vineyards

Golden Haven Hot Springs
Now, of course, no trip to Calistoga is without a little pampering. We chose Golden Haven Hot Springs because of their great deal on a couple’s mud bath and free use of their mineral pools (at $64/person). Golden Haven follows the “traditional” mud bath process, and the place feels a bit haunted by miners and hippies past, but that only adds to the mystical experience. As newbie mud bathers we were a bit hesitant climbing into the tubs, especially when told the bottoms’ll burn ya! But once comfortably settled in the mix of mud, clay, and Calistoga hot spring water, it’s like floating on a heated quilt full of tiny, densely packed beads massaging your every crevice. Your body won’t sink, but your mind pleasantly will. After about 15 minutes, you shower off, slip into your private mineral hot tub, and then get escorted to a softly lit room where you’re wrapped in a warm blanket and encouraged to take your mind to far-off lands.

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Golden Haven Hot Springs

Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History
Once that mud-high fades, one last stop in town should be at the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. It’s a charming little spot dedicated to one of the more fascinating personalities of Gold Rush times: pioneer, promoter, entrepreneur, and California’s first millionaire, Sam Brannan. Just seeing the timeline of this guy’s life is worth the $3 donation. I’m shocked there hasn’t already been a Hollywood movie depicting his life of Mormonism, multiple marriages, deadly shoot-outs, lucrative investments, and eventually bankruptcy. The museum is named after Ben Sharpsteen, an animator for Walt Disney, and so you’ll also find a good stock of Disney memorabilia.

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Listening up in the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History

Lastly…
While Calistoga may not have the same luster it did when Brannan opened his original Calistoga Hot Springs Resort some 150 years ago, it still has a rustic kind of charm without the hoity-toity Napa pretensions. Strangest thing, though: I didn’t come across one bottle of Calistoga water…

*BONUS FEATURE*
FOOD HIGHLIGHTS in ST. HELENA

The Model Bakery
Less than 10 miles southeast of Calistoga is the decidedly chicer town of St. Helena. Here, the dining options are aplenty and a little more varied than in Calistoga. There’s a good cluster of restaurants, cafes, olive oil shops, and boutiques along and around Main Street, so it’s best to park and take a stroll around the ‘hood. Food must-stops include the Model Bakery, whose claim to fame is their fluffy, hearty English muffins — and I can vouch that you’ll think twice about ever getting a package of Thomas’ after biting into one of Model’s. And though the wealth of pastries, breads, cakes, and pies, will have you more than salivating, they also offer sandwiches and salads packed with fresh, seasonal veggies to offset any sugary indulgent.

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Prosecco at Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen

Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen
For dinner, I highly recommend the Himalayan Sherpa Kitchen. The owners here are from Nepal and offer a wide assortment of traditional Nepali and Indian dishes. The service was impeccable — gracious and efficient — but the food is what really left a lasting impression. It’s a delicate balance bringing together the rich spices of this type of cuisine; when done best, the flavors lie waiting under your tongue, slowly colliding, until your taste buds pop with delight — and we happily experienced that here. The naan bread (you can also get with basil or cilantro) was optimally soft on the inside, crispy on the out. The Saag Paneer was rich and creamy, and the Tandoori Tikka chicken breast was tender and spiced just right with the peppers and onions — both go well with a glass of prosecco. All of that was plenty for two people. Full and satisfied, a belly-easing mint tea was our perfect nightcap.

A Travel Snob’s Virgin Voyage to Hawaii

My Kauai experience with help from Stephanie Benson

As a self-described travel snob, I always assumed Hawaii was an overrated travel destination rife with gleaming families and spoiled kids, Waikiki cheeseballs, and big men playing little ukuleles. And so I always avoided venturing out there, until my personal Hawaii expert, Handstand Steph, convinced me to bypass Oahu and give the lesser populated island Kauai a try. And now here I am a new ukulele owner and a true Hawaii convert.

The calm before the storm in Kapaʻa, Kauai in Hawaii.

The calm before the storm in Kapaʻa, Kauai in Hawaii.

Kauai has a mysterious power; here, Mother Nature truly asserts her paradoxical disposition — one minute she’s a peaceful wave, the next a violent riptide. (Or perhaps it’s just the power of the Menehune, the mythical race of small people that Hawaiians like to blame their problems on.) Upon landing in Lihue, we were refreshed by how relatively little the island was developed. Even just outside the airport, it seems endlessly lush and unspoiled.

Napali Coast Trail

Napali Coast Trail

From the time-worn cliffs of the Napali Coast to the fresh black lava shores, from the hip town of Kapaa to Waimea Canyon — home to “the Grand Canyon of the West” — I felt as if I had stepped into a friendly, chill, and less commercial extension of a place like Northern California or Oregon — only with wild (and brash) roosters, jungle-like land, and great canyons overlooking tropical beaches.

Waimea Canyon, The Grand Canyon of the West!

Waimea Canyon, The Grand Canyon of the West!

But this didn’t feel like the United States in a lot of ways. The majority of our stay was in Kapaa, a charming town full of mom-and-pop restaurants with a DIY and progressive approach. The independent spirit is alive here — in its locals and transplants, anti-establishment politicking, and small businesses. (Many in Kauai seemed to make their disapproval of Monsanto and GMOs very clear, for example. Kudos to them!) Just check out Hoku Foods Natural Market — a socially-and-sustainably-conscious store with an incredible selection of fresh, organic foods — it puts a corporate beast like Whole Foods to shame. Or go to the coffeehouse Java Kai for a smooth cup of joe or a smoothie made with local ingredients. And for dinner, drinks, and entertainment, check out Trees Lounge; tucked behind a row of resorts in Kapa’a, this unassuming spot seems to be a local favorite thanks to a great selection of food (get the beignets!) and live music from local artists nightly.

Hanalei, Kauai

Hanalei, Kauai

Signs for independence at Salt Pond Beach Park in Kauai.

Signs for independence at Salt Pond Beach Park in Kauai.

But the real jewels of Kauai reside in its natural environment, of course. Without a doubt, the rugged and daredevil hiking opportunities offer plenty of escapist delights. The Napali Coast is otherworldly — vibrant, serene, and dangerous all at once. The trail’s beauty can take your breath away, but so can the four-hundred-feet drop to the wild Pacific Ocean just inches from your feet. Unfortunately, violent winds and heavy rains (“one of the worst storms in years,” said a local) thwarted our attempts to complete the entire 22-mile round-trip trek. (Just another reason to go back!)

South Shore Cliff Hike

Handstand Steph!

Kauai also offers other less treacherous hiking: We checked out the trail to Ho’opi’i Falls, which included a trek through wild tropical vegetation overgrowth to a serene set of waterfalls.Take note: this area is filled with mosquitoes eager to suck your blood — seriously, cover up and bring bug spray! — and there are several offshoot trails that can easily get you turned around. We used the AllTrails iPhone app, which was somewhat of a guide, but the user reviews only confused us further! Use with caution. Another hiking excursion we recommend is located down on the southern coast, starting at Ha’ula Beach near the Poipu Kai resort. From the beach you climb right up to the cliffs along the coast, and from there it’s all stunning, steep drops with even a few hidden caves to escape from the sun. Aside from hiking, our other adventure involved camping at the pristine Anini Beach. We pitched a tent right on the fringe of the beach — maybe a little too on the fringe as the high tide at 3AM felt mighty close to our tiny makeshift abode.

Anini Beach, Kauai

Anini Beach, Kauai

Napali Coast Trail

Napali Coast Trail

Still, Anini was a delight — peaceful and serene, this beach is protected by Hawaii’s largest coral reef, and is a great spot for stargazing and simple reflection.

All in all, I would gladly return to Kauai — the opportunities for escape and solace are endless. If (and when!) I return, I’d plan time to see more of the island’s innards, particularly the great Waimea Canyon. I’d also rent a 4WD vehicle and hit the more banged-up roads to experience the remote beach of Polihale (only accessible via a four-mile, heavily-potholed dirt road). But for now, I’m happy to say my experience in Kauai has made me a true believer in Hawaii’s famed greeting, “Aloha.” “Alo” means to share in the present moment; “oha” is joy; and “ha” is life’s energy. Together, “aloha” roughly translates as “joyfully sharing life” — an inspiring sentiment for an island that truly embraces this ideal. Aloha!

Poipu Beach Center with Santa Claus.

Poipu Beach Center with Santa Claus.

Trip Daze: Portland’s Best Tastes and Sights

Portland CollageForget San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The West Coast’s premier culinary destination is much more modest. The diversity of those aforementioned cities may lend to their allure, their celebrity chefs, their hoity-toity boutiques, their overpriced cup of joe, their overall bloated pride. Portland may seem a very white town, but in our four days there, we had everything from vegan doughnuts to Cuban tapas, French bites to Iraqi-Jewish street food, Thai cuisine to Lebanese specialties, gluten-free beer to homemade kombucha. (Heck, we even went salsa dancing at an underground club! Check out Andrea’s Cha Cha Cha Club in the Industrial District, and prepare to be intimidated by some serious salsa movers and shakers.) The food stand culture alone is a fascinating display of the independent-minded spirit of this town. Areas of specialty food stands pop up like mini housing developments devoted to nothing other than neighborliness and nourishment. Portland’s lack of big chains allows for healthier competition among these smaller operations, meaning it’s damn hard to find a dud. And it’s damn hard to empty your wallet in the process (ie. the food here is cheap!). But aside from eating and drinking, there’s the grand Powell’s Books, the vibrant International Rose Test Garden, and even one of the U.S.’s few bungee jumping spots just an hour north of the city. Follow our journey through Portland below and discover the charms, the thrills, and the amazing treats it has to offer.

EATS!

Pambiche Cocina & Reposteria Cubana
2811 NE Glisan St.

PambichePortland is some 2,700 miles from Cuba, but the vibrantly colored and muraled building housing Pambiche plants you in the heart of Havana (or at least maybe Miami). Happy hour here is a steal, from the flaky-crusted empanadas to the light and juicy Ensalada Caribena (a cabbage slaw tossed with fresh citrus and herbs and just $3.50 for a big bowl of it) to the Ropa Vieja, a dish of shredded beef in tomato broth ($4.50). The Yuca Frita and Maduros (fried plantains) were on the dry side, but nothing a Cerveza Cristal or Periodista (AKA “The Journalist,” a cocktail or rum + passion fruit liqueur + orange juice + lime) can’t fix.

The Hazel Room
3279 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

The Hazel RoomWe stumbled upon this charming place and found it to be a must for brunch. Outdoor seating is ideal when it’s sunny, of course, and so is a mimosa with grapefruit juice or a coffee with a generous $2 side of whiskey. For brunch, go for the Chorizo & Potato Hash Scramble (pictured to the left) served with a hearty pile of gluten-free toast, or the Tallboy (a pulled pork, egg, and portabella mushroom squeezed between a buttery biscuit).

Sweet Hereafter
3326 SE Belmont St.
A rustic, woodsy bar with bites, with a large open seating area in the back, Sweet Hereafter is so cozy we even saw a few people reading (with real books in hand!) at the rather dimly lit bar. The Omission gluten-free pale ale (from local brewmasters the Widmer Brothers) was a good (and strong!) choice here, and if I were to go back I’d definitely try a dessert or entrée, like the health-boosting “Precious Bowl” of coconut kale, black beans, and brown rice.

Wolf and Bear’s
3925 N. Mississippi Ave.

Wolf & Bear'sHead out to Mississippi Avenue for great boutiques, brewpubs, and most importantly, Wolf and Bear’s, a modest food stand tucked away behind a foliage-covered fence. Here you’ll find food you’ll want to scarf down with the animalistic intensity its name suggests. This is some of the best Middle Eastern cuisine this side of the Mississippi (River, that is) and the dinner bill for two people came out to a mere $17, two 12oz Lion Heart Kombuchas (one a combo of lemonade and Kombucha) included. Get the $7 Sabich (the Iraqi-Jewish traditional breakfast) or for smaller appetites go for the Lil’ Critter with a side of falafel. The pita wraps are soft, fresh, and warm and sturdy enough to absorb all the nutrition inside. Don’t forget the hot sauce, more freshly herbaceous than tongue-waggingly hot. Heck, stop here and you may end up in a Portlandia episode. Rumor was they were filming there just hours before we discovered the spot.

Petite ProvencePetite Provence Alberta
1824 NE Alberta St.
For a slice of France, hit up Petite Provence (there are a few locations throughout PDX). Rich pastries and desserts will lure you in, but the dinner menu offers a great array of “petite entrees” perfect for tapas-style sharing.

Cheryl’s on 12th
1135 SW Washington Street
With a more upscale diner feel, this downtown spot is ideal for brunch (it’s also a market and bakery). Our waitress was sweet and attentive, and the housemade granola with Greek yogurt and fresh berries is a top-notch choice.

Voodoo Doughnut & Stumptown Coffee
22 SW 3rd Ave. / 128 SW 3rd Ave

VoodooThe talk of the town (and the Food Network), Voodoo Doughnut was our first stop from the airport, a perfect late breakfast to kick off our culinary tour through Portland. Situated in the grungier bowels of Chinatown, directly across the street from Dante’s, the building with KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD plastered on its side (apt scenery while chowing down on say, the “Cock-N-Balls” doughnut), Voodoo has become the Voodoo Boxtourist destination of downtown. Expect a wait of at least 30 minutes. Grab a cup of coffee at Portland’s revered Stumptown Coffee Roasters just down the street on 3rd Avenue to wire up before your sugar rush. Once reaching the inside, it’s a bit intimidating – and hypnotizing, watching the doughnuts swivel around in their glass-encased showcase tube – as you stare up at the big board of endless possibilities, from oreo-crumbled to cereal-encrusted to cream-filled to vegan. We recommend the Portland Cream, Bacon Maple Bar, or Vegan Coconut.

THRILLS & SIGHTS!

Bungee Jumping (One hour from Portland)
NE Healy Rd. and NE Belvins Rd.
Amboy, WA 98601

bungeecollageYep, that’s us, just jumping 20 stories off of a bridge. In the rain. One of the few bungee spots in the U.S. — and just one hour north of Portland (and near Mt. St. Helens for another road trip hotspot) — this Pacific Northwest bridge is used specifically for scaring the bejeezus out of anyone who dares step into a harness. It’s a great first jump for anyone who hasn’t bungee’d before and the guys of Bungee.com have enough jovial death jokes to keep you on edge as you reach the edge. And, yes, it’s much scarier, ballsier, and more exhilarating than skydiving.

Moulton Falls Regional Park
Yacolt, WA

2013-08-25 17.33.03Near Vancouver, Washington, just across the border — and on the way to bungeeing or Mt. St. Helens — this fertile area offers hiking and biking trails along the crystal-clear Lewis River. Watch for the (small) waterfall just to the right of the main parking area.

International Rose Test Garden
850 SW Rose Garden Way

International Rose Test GardenWe took our pink Voodoo Doughnut box (“Good things come in pink boxes”) a few miles west to Washington Park, home to Portland’s International Rose Test Garden. A picnic of doughnuts made under the suggestive slogan of “The magic is in the Hole!” seemed somewhat poetic among the fields of precious, pristine roses. Portland takes its roses quite seriously (you’ll see references to them all over the city), and on these “testing grounds” you’ll find over 500 some varieties. There’s even a miniature rose section and a Shakespeare one, which was, as the garden’s website says, “originally designed to include only herbs, trees and flowers mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.” After strolling through the test gardens, you can also stroll through the Portland Japanese Garden (for an admission price).

SWEET DREAMS!

Hotel Modera
515 SW Clay St.

Hotel ModeraThis self-proclaimed luxury boutique hotel in the heart of downtown is indeed luxurious. The location is ideal, close to the Portland Saturday Market and the Pearl District, with easy access to all the bridges. The decor is sleek and modern, but not at all stuffy. Our king-sized bed was a little too comfortable, lined with a pillow-top mattress and smooth designer linens. The marbled bathroom adds another palatial touch and we couldn’t get enough of the Tarocco bath products, made with Italian blood oranges and olive oil. There’s also a great outdoor seating area adjacent to the hotel’s restaurant. It’s a great place to chat, relax, read, or strategize the day’s plans.

AND, A FEW SILLY SIGNS

PDXSigns

A Newbie’s Account of SXSW

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Texas State Capitol in Downtown Austin. Built in 1885.

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The Mohawk, a popular venue in Austin, draws its inspiration from the Native American culture of the Northeast — not the hairdo.

Austin is a city brimming with tech investment, yuppie luxuries, hipster havens, Southern charm, healthy eats, and cultural attractions — but it’s probably most famous for its mighty SXSW Music Conference. My first time at the annual music-industry extravaganza involved quite a mix of emotions: excitement, anticipation, confusion, anxiety. With so much going on, the sense of wonderment and worry comes from that nagging feeling that you’re missing out on something great just around the corner. I was lucky enough to go with a seasoned veteran, aka Handstand Steph, who helped direct me to venues and parties filled with great new bands. This may not be as easy a task as you’d think. See, SXSW has quickly grown into a corporate free-for-all, where a stage resembling a giant Doritos bag is the main attraction, and where A-list celebrities woo even the snobbiest of music fans and insiders. Do Justin Timberlake and Prince really need to be there? More importantly, does every media outlet need to report on it? What happened to SXSW being purely an outlet for unsigned bands and music discovery?

Handstand Steph poses with Britt Daniel of Spoon and the Divine Fits.

Handstand Steph poses with Britt Daniel (of Spoon and the Divine Fits) amid the madness near Sixth Street.

Eggs Benedict

The best organic Eggs Benedict off West Sixth Street in Austin.

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PhotoPhiles Vol. II, Baja California Sur, Mexico

PhotoPhiles will be a recurring feature spotlighting some of our favorite photos taken on and off the road. The second edition includes shots taken from Baja California, Mexico.

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The original Catholic church of Todos Santos, Mexico built in 1733 located 30 miles from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Nuestra Senora del Pilar de Todos Santos means Our Lady of Pilar Church. Desert charm and history mix naturally here.

Handstandy

Do a handstand for Mexico! Handstand Steph represents the “i” in Mexico while JCrew holds down the fort and samples the local flavors. Taken near Playa Balconcito on the Cabo San Lucas Marina.

Palm trees represent freedom and relaxation. Spanish Jesuit missionaries brought the feather-leaf date palm to Baja, and it continues to thrive around Baja California.

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Whether you think of the cheesy Eagles song or a stylish and minimalist hotel in the Baja desert this hotel is fantastico. Distinct food is plentiful around the hotel in the creative and friendly town of Todos Santos.

Desert

Natural terrain in San Jose Del Cabo near the tip of Baja California, it is a place where the desert meets the ocean. This is the only place I’ve seen cacti all the way up to the edges of cliffs overlooking the ocean.

PhotoPhiles, Vol. I

PhotoPhiles will be a recurring feature spotlighting some of our favorite photos taken on and off the road. The first edition includes shots taken in Idaho, San Francisco, Panama, and Joshua Tree.

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Perrine Bridge in Idaho – You can base jump off this bridge but you can’t
bungee jump?! Does this make sense? No!!

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Top Trips, Vol. II: Palm Springs / Joshua Tree

I vowed to make 2012 a year to fully embrace my endless wanderlust. I think I did a pretty decent job. Here, I’ll attempt to prove just that. I’ll be running down my top travel adventures of 2012 … slowly but surely. In no particular order, here’s Vol. II, a trek south and inland to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree Lean

Julian’s Joshua Tree Lean

There’s something mystical yet menacing about the desert. Maybe it’s all that dry air sucking out all the bullshit. Bullshit can’t survive in the desert — the sun would rot it too quickly, or, on a chilly night, the wind would just carry it all the way to, well, a place like L.A.

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