While not exactly a tourist destination, Sterling City does boast a historic little hotel and that was enough to get it on my radar screen as a half-way stop on our drive from Big Bend National Park back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I was looking for a hotel with character and–as nice as Hotel Settles was on the drive down–I wanted to take a different route home just to vary things up a little. When I found a list of historic Texas hotels online, I pulled up Google Maps and eyed the location of those I wasn’t familiar with. 1910 State Hotel in Sterling City seemed exactly what I was looking for.
In recent years, Marfa, Texas, has gained a reputation as a funky, artsy destination town. Before that, it was famous as the filming location for the movie, “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the movie was released posthumously.) The cast stayed at the Hotel Paisano during filming, a -great old inn steeped in West Texas culture. The hotel plays up its connection to the movie with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos scattered throughout.
After our stay in a Roosevelt Stone Cottage in Big Bend National Park, the next stop on our week-long roadtrip was Marfa, Texas. We’d originally planned to take US385 north to Marathon. US385 parallels state highway 118 that we’d taken south from Alpine to the park. US385 had the advantage of taking us a longer and different route through Big Bend National Park to exit. The time to drive to Marfa on either highway would be about the same. That original route plan changed when I spotted a longer route that ran along the border and the Rio Grande. When I asked some of the staff at Chisos Mountains Lodge about that road, I was told it was called The River Road and not to miss it if we had the time. It would take us an extra 20 miles and an extra 45-50 minutes. We had the time, and we had a new route to Marfa.
The goal and ultimate destination of our week-long Texas roadtrip was Big Bend National Park, one of the most remote national parks in the country. I’d heard about it all my life, but had a mental block about the distance. My loss! The park is remote…and desolate and harsh and ruggedly beautiful and vast beyond description.
My plans hadn’t included a government shutdown, and I was glad I’d booked one of the Roosevelt-era cottages in in the park’s Chisos Mountains Lodge over a year in advance since the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire and was open despite the unoccupied booth at the entrance to the park and the sign notifying visitors that park campgrounds were closed and staff was furloughed. I was happy to find the cottage all I’d hoped for, and we quickly settled in on our first afternoon, eager to get outside as soon as possible. We started with Chisos Basin Loop Trail, one of the seven hiking trails that start beside the cottages. The trail as far as we explored was well-worn and easy to follow. It had been groomed with logs and stones inset to ease the way on slopes. The view from the trailhead itself was hard to beat with the well-known “Window” at the end of the basin framing the span of desert, mountains and mesas beyond.
Heading to Big Bend National Park from Davis Mountains State Park, we made sure to make time for a stop-off in Terlingua, a former mining town known primarily for its eponymous chili cook-off (actually two cook-offs these days which take place on the first weekend in November). I’d heard about the Terlingua chili cook-off for decades and am the proud owner of a cookbook of championship recipes from the original event. The chili cook-offs draw upwards of 10,000 people to a tent- and camper-filled party in the desert. According to the town’s event calendar, Terlingua has also instituted a couple of lesser cook-offs including one for black-eyed peas and another for dutch ovens. Barring cook-offs, Terlingua is a desolate little town. I didn’t expect much, and a cook-off-less Terlingua turned out to be less than that. Oh well, all travel destinations are not created equal. If you’ve got the time, the turnoff to the Terlingua “Ghost Town” is about 5 miles west of Hwy 118 just north of a main entrance to Big Bend National Park. If you don’t have the time, no worries.
Located in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, Texas, the McDonald Observatory is a research and education facility of the University of Texas. The observatory offers “Star Parties” to the public Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year which are bookable online for a reasonable fee. While the observatory web site states that Star Parties often fill up months in advance, the permissible group size is large and I found 100+ spots still available several days before our Friday night reservation. Our January 17 date no doubt had something to do with the lighter crowd, but we chose the time of year deliberately to avoid crowds…and the sweltering peak-season temperatures in our ultimate destination, Big Bend National Park.
Deciding where to stay during our much-anticipated McDonald Observatory “Star Party” came down to a historic hotel in downtown Fort Davis or Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Highly recommended by friends, closer to the observatory, located within the state park where we wanted to hike, and newly refurbished as of summer 2018, we opted for Indian Lodge.
Built to look like a multi-level pueblo village, Indian Lodge opened to the public in 1939. The lodge boasts a big two-fireplace den/game room, a lovely pool and a restaurant with hit-and-miss opening hours. Our room on the upper level had windows on two sides and a now-blocked adobe fireplace in one corner. The ceiling consisted of large beams and twigs. Just what I had in mind!
I’m super excited about our upcoming week-long Texas roadtrip. As a native Texan with roots going back to the days when Texas was an independent republic, it’s high time I got myself to one of the state’s most iconic, unique and remote treasures, Big Bend National Park. I reserved one of the park’s coveted Chisos Mountains Lodge cottages a year ago and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate when the allotted time rolled around. A government shutdown didn’t even cross my mind back then. Fortunately, although Big Bend is a national park, the park is open, if unstaffed, and the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire, so we’re still a go. On our journey, we’ll also take in other Texas classics including a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, a stay in the “James Dean” room at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and lots more.
One of the many great opportunities afforded us while cat and housesitting in Edmonds, Washington, is the chance to observe the local marine life. Taking it a step further, Edmonds also hosts the only whale watching boat service in the Seattle area that runs through December, Puget Sound Express. Being whale enthusiasts, we made an outing with Puget Sound Express a top priority when we arrived for our 5-week housesit in Edmonds. With the luxury of being able to walk to the marina where PSE’s two whale watching boats moor, we watched the weather forecast and booked the first sunny, calm day. We chose a weekday hoping for a smaller crowd and had no problem booking a couple of days before, probably because mid-October is off-season.
Whale watching is always a matter of chance, but we really lucked out: Within 10 minutes of pulling out of the marina, we sighted the first humpbacks in the Sound between Whidbey Island and the Kitsap Peninsula. The highlight of the day, though, came when our captain pulled us up to wait facing a huge flock of seagulls feeding on the surface. We could see at least 2 humpbacks heading for the flock and the naturalist aboard told us the whales were coming to feed. The first that arrived, swam under our boat then swam upward into the flock to “lunge feed” just in front of us, its huge head out of the water, jaws closing on food. Seagulls scattered an swirled in every direction. Spectacular! I’ve gone whale watching before, but this was a nature documentary moment.
After that, we sped out to the Salish Sea, spotting sea lions on channel markers along the way and the occasional harbor seal. In the Salish, we spotted two pods of orcas hunting and socializing. We snapped photos of them with Mt. Baker providing a picture-perfect backdrop against a blue sky. What a day!
Although we could have ordered sandwiches, chips and a drink from Red Twig, a cute eatery a couple of blocks from our condo in Edmonds for $15 apiece, we packed our own sandwiches. (The strange and very handy hardware/grocery/deli hybrid Ace Hardware store on the corner of 5th Ave. and Walnut St. in Edmonds makes great sandwiches for half the price. They’re enormous, too. Half a sandwich is more than ample for me.) We were glad we brought our own when we saw the sandwiches provided: On generic sandwich bread, not what we’d expect from Red Twig. One lady we talked to was very disappointed. For $5.50, you can buy a ceramic “bottomless” mug offering refills from the galley of coffee, tea or hot chocolate. – Heavenly, after getting chilled standing outside watching whales. The ride in the speedy Chillkat (40mph+!) was surprisingly smooth and I was never in any danger of spilling a drop.
All in all, we were really impressed with Puget Sound Express, its boat, naturalist, captain, everything. The price is $135/adult and $85/child for a 4-hour whale watching excursion. The only glitch came pre-trip with some confusion over the meeting place as Puget Sound Express Whale Watching has two boats, the Puget Sound Express and the smaller (and faster?) Chillkat. We arrived early and waited by the Express behind Anthony’s where an email told us to go, but finally had to call when no one showed up. It turned out we were supposed to be further down at Dock D for the Chillkat. The lady on the phone was not clear on where we should be either and kept trying to send us in the opposite direction, but we finally found the right spot and boarded. (Someone told us the Chillkat is the boat they takeout on weekdays; no idea if that’s accurate.) We pulled out right at 9:32am and were back at 2pm. To book the tour we took on the Puget Sound Express website, click “Tours” in the drop-down menu at the top then “Guaranteed Whale Watching Tours,” then “Seattle Whale Watching Tours.” The guarantee is that you’ll get to go again if no whales are spotted, a good offer for visitors who can make use of it. PSE also offers tours out of Port Townsend on the Kitsap Peninsula as well as multi-day and bird watching tours.
As I mentioned in my last post, we’re spending five weeks cat and housesitting in Edmonds, Washington, a beautiful little town on Puget Sound just north of Seattle. Since our arrival in Seattle in late September, we’ve been blessed with one of the most spectacular autumns imaginable. The trees are on fire in shades ranging from bright yellow to deep burgundy and the skies have been unseasonably clear. We’ve been told Edmonds can get crowded in the summer–and no wonder, it’s got lots to offer in the way of charm, but it’s been delightfully crowd-free during our stay save for a blow-out, family-friendly Halloween street party.
The condo we’re in is in a lovely, well-secured building, although it’s hard to imagine needing security in this picture-perfect slice of Americana. The building opens onto one of the two main streets in “the Bowl” of Edmonds that dips down to the waterfront. Tree-lined, with a fountain in the middle of the intersection, pretty old-style buildings, this part of Edmonds reminds us of some idealized Mayberry. We’ve spent our days exploring the many boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops lining the blocks around us and walking to the water where we like to plant ourselves on a long, L-shaped concrete pier to watch the ubiquitous fishermen and people crabbing off the pier and the ferries shuttling between Edmonds and Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula. We take binoculars to scan the water for harbor seals, waterfowl and a bald eagle that has staked out a perch atop the mast of a particular sailboat in the yacht club marina, sometimes with a fish fresh-plucked from the Sound. Yesterday, we joined a small group at the end of the pier watching orcas swimming across the Sound, some so close to the ferry leaving Kingston that it was stopped for a while to let the orcas pass. I saw these magnificent sea mammals breach four times, leaping out of the water to fall back with a huge splash. What an unexpected treat! (See why we’re never without binoculars around here?) The Olympic Mountains provide the purple-blue backdrop to the peninsula and Mt. Baker looms off to the right up the coast. Gorgeous!
Edmonds hosts all sorts of events throughout the year. There’s a free monthly art walk every third Thursday, 5-8pm with local artists displaying their works in various shops and cafes. We just missed an annual writers’ conference the first weekend in October that I would have loved to have attended. The Halloween bash I mentioned was tons of fun with over-the-top costumes on children and adults and music playing on the main circle. Nearly every establishment on the two closed-off streets handed out candy. The local theater had a free “haunted theater” and distributed bags of popcorn afterwards. The bakery handed out donut holes. A local church offered free coffee and hot chocolate. The local history museum hosted a for-pay haunted house. There’s a holiday market scheduled to open and more throughout the year. Find a calendar of events on the Visit Edmonds website.
In addition to all the above, the Edmonds beer scene is pretty impressive for such a small town. There are two local breweries, Salish Sea Brewing Company (downtown and offering food as well) and American Brewing Company (a taproom), Brigid’s a great bottle shop offering local craft beer, and Gallaghers’ Where-U-Brew, a spot where you can brew your own beer or sample the house brews. I’ll see if I can’t get David to do a post on those soon. A local husband and wife own a craft spirits distillery by Brigid’s called Scratch Distillery that offers tastings and workshops where you can blend and take home custom spirits. Gin is their thing, but they’ve branched into vodka and whiskey as well.
We haven’t found a bad restaurant in town, but can particularly recommend classic Anthony’s Homeport which faces the yacht marina and gets a great view of sunset over Puget Sound. We hesitated to try Mexican restaurant Las Brisas because we get plenty of that in Texas…but we don’t get halibut ceviche or halibut fajitas. Awesome! For cocktails, it’s hard to beat tiny, Paris-inspired Daphne’s. A single bartender mixes classic drinks while maintaining a constant banter with patrons perched around the bar, the only seating save for two small tables. Daphne’s seems to host a never-ending party. We hear chatter and laughter from Daphne’s whenever we walk by, day or night. Although we’d stuck our heads in a couple of times, we didn’t give it a try until last night. I loved the sidecar, a 1918 Ritz Hotel in Paris concoction of brandy, Cointreau, lemon juice and a twist. David opted for a “corpse reviver” from the Savoy Cocktail Handbook circa 1930: Gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, absinthe, lemon juice and a cherry. Delish!
There’s an extensive scuba diving park just off Bracket’s Landing Park beach by the ferry dock offering walk-in dives. There is also an excellent whale watching company, Puget Sound Express, that offers year-round boat excursions. We had an incredible day with them watching humpbacks (including a nature-documentary-worthy lunge feeding episode) just 10 minutes out into the Sound and orcas in the Salish Sea. I’ll post about that separately.
Oh yeah, travel guru Rick Steves calls Edmonds home, too. His headquarters is on 4th Avenue North where visitors can book tours, borrow travel books, view videos and do a little shopping for travel gear. He’s a popular native son, philanthropist and vocal proponent of legalizing marijuana.
Our sole criticism of Edmonds is the noise. Between trains, the ferries, seaplanes, trash and recycling pick-up, and amazingly frequent lawn care involving leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, this town needs to do something about the noise pollution. It’s really out-of-keeping with the clear care taken to keep the town immaculate and inviting. Nevertheless, Edmonds is more than worth a visit if you’re in the area and an easy drive from Seattle. It’s also a good base to visit the Kitsap Peninsula by ferry, take Boeing’s impressive Future of Flight tour in nearby Everett, take the ferry from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island, and many other local attractions. There’s only one hotel in the Bowl, the Best Western Edmonds Harbor Inn, and a few AirBnB apartments, but the Bowl is undoubtedly the charming heart of Edmonds.