I once had a home exchange offer from a couple in San Francisco who wanted to attend the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. The timing didn’t work for me so I had to turn down the offer, but I was so pleased to find out that our Jazz Fest attracts people all the way from California.
The festival got its start during Expo 86, and has been held every year since. It’s now Canada’s second-largest jazz festival (second only to Montreal). Some 300 performances (half are free), some 1800 performers, and almost half a million spectators enjoy some of the best music to be heard in Vancouver.
Jazz Fest is always held the last ten days of June ― just in case you want to put it on your calendar for next year.
A dear friend of mine flew across the Atlantic Ocean last night to begin her summer in Italy. Tonight, she is in Siena.
Nope, not jealous.
No, really! (I’m thinking the more often I repeat that mantra, the sooner I’ll believe it.)
What’s great about having friends who like to travel is that you’re never short of travelling companions. And what I love about this particular friend is how comfortable we both feel at inviting ourselves along when the other is making travel plans. Case in point: when I told her last summer that I had arranged a week-long home exchange in New York City, and then asked her what she was doing the third week of August, she didn’t hesitate.
“It looks like I’m spending the third week of August in New York,” she said.
I’ve never spent a summer in Italy (someday!), but I once spent a week in Siena. I invited myself to visit this same friend (do we see a pattern here?) while she was studying art through the University of Toronto’s Summer Program in Siena.
After spending a sleepless night on a train from Vienna to Florence and a hot day wandering Florence feeling slightly ill, I boarded the bus to Siena and promptly fell asleep. When I woke, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. The Tuscan countryside I was looking at through my window was more beautiful than I ever imagined it could be.
I waited for my friend on the steps of the Basilica of San Domenico, which, back in those days, was where the buses from Florence dropped you off. I was far too early, but I happily spent the next few hours relaxing and people-watching in the shade of the cathedral.
My friend showed up at the hour we agreed to meet, and in no time at all we had deposited my bag in her room and were seated at an outside table of the nearest trattoria, sharing a bottle of Chianti and digging into two heaping plates of pasta, Tuscan style. Italian teenagers whizzed by us on scooters. Through the course of the evening, my friend’s classmates, one after the other, joined us at our table. It was the best arrival I’ve ever experienced in a foreign city.
This photo was the view from her room in the student residence of the University of Siena. Can you imagine waking up to that vista every morning for five weeks? I sure can.
As someone who considers herself an Albertan at heart (having been raised there), I can’t help but be affected by the images coming out of the southern part of that province today. What’s so shocking is how quickly the rivers rose (in about 36 hours) and how many people have been affected (more than 100,000 evacuated). Flooding from spring run-off is common on the Prairies, but the effects of this rainstorm took everyone by surprise.
One of the flooded rivers is the Bow River. It’s completely overflowed its banks in the community of Canmore and in the city of Calgary, Alberta’s largest city. I took this photo of the mighty Bow looking mighty placid some miles upstream from Banff a few years ago while travelling from Edmonton to Vancouver by car.
I first discovered wild BC spot prawns a couple of years ago when I noticed them popping up on restaurant menus around town.
“Spot prawns? What are spot prawns?” I asked my friends. They didn’t know either. I ordered them, tasted them, fell in love with them …
With a little research, I discovered that the wild BC spot prawn is the largest of seven species of commercially available BC shrimp. What’s unique about them is their distinctive white spots and naturally bright orange colour.
With a little more research, I learned that the spot prawn fishery is one of BC’s most sustainable fisheries. It’s limited to trap gear only, and the prawns are hand sorted upon removal from the ocean. Prawns too small for consumption are thrown back. About 90 percent of the commercial catch is shipped to Japan and the remainder is sold locally. But here’s the kicker: the season is short ― only six weeks from mid-May to June. In other words: get them while you can. (And if you don’t live in BC or Japan, well, too bad for you.)
Last year, I got up the courage to cook spot prawns myself. I had house guests ― my brother and his family were visiting from land-locked Alberta ― and when they told me they wanted to spend the day playing tourist at Granville Island, I decided to show off. I told them, casual like (as if I did it all the time), that I would pick up some spot prawns at the market for our dinner.
I was a bit taken aback when the fishmonger scooped a handful of live spot prawns from a water tank. “I didn’t know they were sold live,” I whispered to my brother, my bravado quickly disappearing. Gamely, I accepted the plastic bag of prawns wrapped in newspaper. I told the fishmonger I was planning to sauté them with garlic in butter.
“Excellent,” he said. “That’s the best way to prepare them.”
“But … do I have to … you know … kill them first?” I asked gingerly.
“Nope,” he said. “By the time you get them home, they’ll be dead.” Phew. I’m no vegetarian, but I draw the line at killing my own food.
He was right. When I unwrapped my package a few hours later, the shrimp were still bright orange, but most definitely in a non-living state. I cooked them up, and we devoured those garlicky spot prawns in record time. Their taste reminded me of lobster, and my only regret was that I didn’t buy more.
This year, I did buy more, and I cooked them the same way, relishing them as much as the first time. The very next evening, I went to my sister’s and her husband’s for a barbecue dinner, and was pleased to find out that grilled spot prawns were on the menu. But I was stunned when I saw the plate of prawns she had prepared for grilling.
“Where are the heads!?” I asked.
My sister looked at me, puzzled. “You have to take them off,” she insisted.
Lively debate ensues: do you eat spot prawns with the heads on or off? (And, while we’re at it, do you need to devein them?)
Back to Google. It turns out that deveining spot prawns is a matter of personal preference. (I have yet to taste the grittiness some claim is common if you don’t devein.) But what is critical is that you remove the heads immediately if you aren’t intending to cook the prawns the same day, because they release an enzyme after death that makes the tail meat turn mushy.
Here is the recipe I like to use (with heads on), but know that if you eat yours with heads off, they will be just as tasty.
Wild BC Spot Prawns
1 pound whole spot prawns
2 tablespoons butter
2 cloves minced garlic
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1/4 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1. Melt butter in a large frying pan on medium high heat.
2. Add minced garlic and parsley and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Add prawns and white wine, tossing to coat with the butter and parsley, then season with salt and pepper.
4. Cover and cook 4 to 5 minutes, no longer.
Serve with slices of crusty baguette and a chilled buttery chardonnay.
A couple of posts ago, I mentioned that the Chihuly Garden and Glass alone was worth a visit to Seattle. I did not exaggerate: it is one of the most distinctive art installations I have ever seen.
The artist, Dale Chihuly, was born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941. He studied at the universities of Washington and Wisconsin and at the Rhode Island School of Design, and in Venice, Italy, on a Fulbright. His work is exhibited in more than 200 collections all over the world.
If you ever get to Seattle, do not miss this unique gallery.
And, if you are still not convinced, here are a few more photos. (Just a few.)
Remember when I wrote that I don’t blog about the hotels I stay in, because they’re nothing to write home about?
Well, I’m going to have to eat my words, because this is another post about a hotel ― which makes for two posts in as many months.
The hotel I am recommending is Hotel Five, a boutique hotel in central Seattle.
It’s got location: it’s in Belltown, an area just next to Seattle’s downtown core, which makes it walking distance to the major tourist attractions, as well as a good selection of restaurants, bars, and shops.
It’s got service: our room was ready when we arrived (post–cruise ship disembarkment) at 7:30 a.m. We were fully expecting to be dropping off our bags and not having access to our room until much later in the day, so we were pleasantly surprised to be given room key cards upon our arrival. And shortly after we checked in, the front desk called our room to make sure we were happy with our accommodation and to ask if there was anything we needed. I’ve never experienced that kind of service anywhere I’ve stayed. (Maybe I’m staying in the wrong hotels!?)
And it’s got style: the rooms were cleverly decorated, and the bathrooms new and modern.
I didn’t book this hotel; one of my travelling companions did. Note to self: get my friends to book my hotel accommodation more often.
Now that I’ve told you how we got to Seattle, and how we got back from Seattle, you might be wondering what there is to do and see while in Seattle. The city, I was pleased to discover, is the perfect size for a weekend visit. It’s large enough that there’s something for everyone, but small enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed by all the choices.
Let’s start off with the architecture. Upon arrival, you can’t help but notice the Space Needle, a prominent landmark of Seattle’s skyline that was built for the 1962 World’s Fair. It’s impressive when you stand beneath it, but … well … not so impressive I wanted to pay money to go up it.
Never mind. At the base of the Space Needle is a building that did impress me enough to want to pay the admission fee. That would be the EMP Museum, designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry. The building’s deconstructivist style is just so fun to look at, and so shiny and colourful and fluid that you can’t resist reaching out your hand to touch the building as you walk by.
Inside the museum is even more fun, with exhibits more entertaining than I thought possible. Want to learn everything there is to know about Nirvana? It’s here. Jimi Hendrix? Him too.
The museum also has also some really cool artifacts from the world of fantasy and science fiction TV and film. As in: the Cowardly Lion’s costume, Susan Pevensie’s bow and quiver of arrows, Yoda’s staff, Darth Vader’s light sabre, Data’s uniform … they’re all here. Geekdom heaven, wouldn’t you say?
Seattle scored a second “starchitect”-designed building with the Seattle Central Library, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Don’t just walk around its exterior, though. Have a quick look inside too, taking the time to go all the way up to the top floor for a remarkable view over the atrium.
Once you’ve seen Seattle’s architectural highlights, I recommend checking out one of the most unique art installations I’ve seen anywhere: the Chihuly Garden and Glass. (It alone is worth a visit to Seattle.) The museum opened a year ago, so it’s rather new, and it’s rather extraordinary. Dale Chihuly is an American glass sculptor who creates exquisite works of blown glass. Photos don’t do his work justice, but, forgive me, I’ll post one anyways.
A Seattle institution you shouldn’t miss is Pike Place Market, located near the downtown waterfront. In operation since 1907, it’s one of the oldest farmer’s market in the United States. Fresh local produce, seafood, and flowers are at street level, while the lower levels are filled with shops of all sorts, including bakeries, restaurants, clothing, and local crafts. Be sure to see the fishmongers in action as they throw the fish to each other before wrapping them up for the customer. Oh, and there’s a coffee shop in the market you may have heard of: Starbucks. Not just any Starbucks, though ― it’s the first ever one, which opened for business in 1971.
We stayed in Belltown, which turned out to be a great neighbourhood full of funky coffee shops, trendy restaurants, and lively bars. It is also conveniently located halfway between the downtown waterfront and Seattle Center (where the Space Needle, the EMP, and the Chihuly Garden and Glass are located).
One thing we didn’t have time for: a ferry ride across Elliott Bay. And there are dozens of other Seattle neighbourhoods I’m told are worth checking out. In other words? I plan to return for another weekend visit soon, because there’s lots more of Seattle to see.