Home From the Wild

July 18, 2018

I think our hardest decision, after making the first hard decision–which was, do we really want to do this Alaskan cruise thing?–was choosing a cruise line. Yeesh, there are a lot of options. And a lot of opinions out there. After several mind-numbing days of trying to sift through all of the information on the interwebs, my husband and I waved the white flag and called a travel agent to help us figure out what would meet our needs. We just didn’t have the patience to figure it out ourselves. This sort of grated on me, because I really like to plan trips (my husband teases me mercilessly about my addiction to travel guidebooks) and I feel a little squirmy about leaving my vacation fate in the hands of someone else.

Someone might just have a few control issues, eh?

In the end, we chose the Celebrity Millenium, because we could customize enough (read: throw walletloads of cash to the wind) to be able to make a lot of decisions ourselves. Because some of us have control issues. I don’t like being told what to do. At all. I didn’t want to be told when I could eat, where I could eat, who I had to eat with, when/what I could drink or order from room service, or what activities I could do. This probably means my fussy, spoiled ass doesn’t belong on a cruise, period.

But take one I did, and despite my skepticism, I truly enjoyed it.

We decided to take the route via Vancouver and even though we spent less than 24 hours there, I fell a little in love with the city.

 

                             -we spent the morning walking in Stanley Park, looking out at Coal Harbor

 

                                             -this guy found some kindred spirits

 

If the cost of living in Vancouver wasn’t ridiculously, impossibly inflated, I could see myself trying to wheedle my husband into packing up and relocating there. Alas, there’s zero way we could afford to do that. You’re welcome, Canada. We aren’t headed your way after all.

Canada was going through a freaky heat wave when we arrived, so even mild-tempered Vancouver seemed a little steamy. We embarked on the Millineum late morning and were enjoying sunny skies and shirtsleeves weather on our balcony all afternoon. Miss M. was content to sit on a deck chair with her sketch book; my husband brought out the portable sound system and tortured her with Yacht Rock. I immediately resorted to liquid measures. Turns out, after a couple of glasses of bubbles, you don’t mind Christopher Cross so much.

                                              -admit it, that song sticks in your head. Saaaaiiilllllliinnnggg.

 

We spent the next full day at sea and entertained ourselves by hollering at World Cup matches on the outside pool deck and exploring every inch of the ship (of particular interest was the cafe serving beautiful French pastries, delicate fruit tarts and house-made gelato. Miss M. thought she’d died and gone to heaven.)

It was beautiful weather sailing out of British Columbia and I thought, “Boy, I didn’t know the weather would be so mild and lovely.”

 

                                                       –mild and lovely… for now

 

It stayed mild and lovely during our first stop in Alaska: Ketchikan. There’s not much to the town itself, although in its heyday it was full of fur trappers, seamen and whorehouses. It’s the “salmon capital” of the U.S. now, but we really didn’t feel like going out on a fishing boat or watching the kitschy lumberjack show in town, so we decided to go on a nice, relaxing hike.

Relaxing, my fat fanny. The dang thing was nearly all uphill–steeply uphill–and we panted and trudged for an hour and then had to call it quits.

 

                                      -Okay, okay. View was worth it. Plus, we earned more gelato and cake.

 

                                            -Hmm…do you see some clouds rolling in?

 

It was a little windy, chilly and there were a few showers when we docked in Icy Strait point, but it didn’t matter, because we were spending the day on a whale watching/marine mammals cruise, so we could go outside on the upper deck when we felt like it and then retreat to the indoor deck with big windows when we got cold. And we hit the Whale Jackpot that day. Boy, did we ever. We saw both resident orcas (fish eating) and transient orcas (mammal eating), as well as several pods of humpback whales. The humpback whales were in packs of 10-15 and were bubble feeding, so sometimes they’d surprise us and pop up in unison, jaws open. It happens without warning and very quickly, so we didn’t get pictures of their enormous heads, but we got lots of shots of them clowning around and blowing little geysers.

                                                                 -total blowhards

 

We also saw dolphins and porpoises, and a few playful otters. But really, the whales stole the show and our guide was completely giddy at the number and variety of whales we saw. “I’m not kidding when I say that this is by far the best whale-watching day I’ve had so far this summer,” she said. “You are very lucky people.”

Sitting down to a late “date lunch” at the sushi restaurant, craft cocktails in hand, my husband and I felt very lucky indeed. It was beginning to get dang chilly and wet by late afternoon, so we spent most of the evening indoors (there may have been hot chocolate and croissants involved).

“Today was awesome,” I said. “But just wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow’s going to be even better. Because you know…DOGS!”

Miss M. rolled her eyes at me. “You can’t be more excited about dogs than whales, mom.”

“Not just dogs!” I protested. “Sled dogs! Direwolves!”

“Mom, you are such a weirdo,” she said. “Only you get this excited about dogs.”

 

Well.

We woke the next morning to find that our luck had run out a little bit. It was very windy, rainy and cold in Juneau. Not ideal weather for spending the day outside, but who cares? Dogs! Direwolves! I’ll freeze my arse off in the name of dogs, no problemo.

Except there was a little problemo. Our dog sledding/helicopter adventure was cancelled. The weather was too treacherous to risk a helicopter ride to Mendenhall Glacier, so for our safety, they had to scrap our canine adventure. I may have cried a little. No doggos for me. My pouting was short-lived though; soon after, we learned that a small plane had crashed over the mountain range in Ketchikan, which we’d hiked uphill to see just two days prior. Nothing like a frigging plane crash to put your priorities in perspective. I felt absolutely ridiculous about feeling disappointed in our missed puppy opportunity.

Plus, we woke up to this:

             -look close at the clouds in the background…is that a face? Abominable Snowman?

We got very close to Hubbard Glacier, the closest the Celebrity Millineum has been able to get to it this season. It’s a magnificent thing to see. And hear. We could hear it snapping, popping and hissing. Pieces of ice cracked off, plunging into the water below. It was a powerful spectacle but also a grim reminder: global warming is real, folks. We’d better smarten up about this sooner rather than later.

We spent the remainder of our time in Alaska hiking (in Skagway), cruising through the Kenai Fjords National Park (more whales and some, ahem…frisky…otters. And puffins, which Miss M. was super excited about.) We pouted when they kicked us off the ship but all good things have to come to an end. Plus, we took a really picturesque train ride from Seward to Anchorage, with waterfalls and mountain sheep and one lone brown bear, which I failed to see as we passed.

We arrived home Saturday night, and after a couple of long travel days, home felt glorious. Even with the knowledge that unpacking, laundry, errands and grocery runs were in our future. Vacations aren’t meant to last forever–that’s why they seem so special, eh?

*****

Q and A Bullshit, so feel free to bail now. I totally understand.

*****

Some of you have already asked me questions about the trip, and I’ll try to answer a few here but shoot me emails/messages if I fail to address things you want to know. I’ll be happy to fill in whatever I can that you’re curious about.

Q:Would you take another cruise?  A: Maybe? I really enjoyed this one, and I honestly don’t think I’d travel around Alaska any other way. It’s just too rustic for me otherwise and the towns are small and far between. We saw tons of folks tooling around in RV’s and pitching tents and loving every minute of it, but I’m not that kind of girl. I was very happy hiking on the trails and spending time in the wilderness and retreating to a warm shower and a spacious cabin and a dinner someone else cooked for me. Adventure girl, I’m not. If we ever do go on another cruise, it will be many years from now. Unless we win the lottery or take out a second mortgage.

Q: Did all the people freak you out?  A: Not that much. Mainly because we unloaded cash to eat at the specialty restaurants and chose excursions offshore that were relatively small in number. I think the Millineum can carry about 2,000 passengers but it felt a lot smaller, to be honest. I freaked out more about the crowds at Sea-Tac airport coming home–airports are the worst.

Q: Was Miss M. bored?  A: Not often. She definitely missed her sister but we went offshore whenever we could, and there were some amusing shows in the evening (one had a fake Elvis–always a bonus in our book) and the quality of the performers surprised us. The highlight was the onboard naturalist, Chelsea. She gave a talk/slideshow almost every day, informing us about the wildlife we were going to see and telling amusing stories about her work in the field. One area Miss M. flat-out refused to participate in was the Kid’s Club. She’s at an awkward age right now (12) for that kind of thing. She feels too old for the regular Kid’s Club and wasn’t old enough yet for the Teen Club. She’s never been much for those programs, though. When she was little, she’d go only if her sister was going, so we were sort of prepared for this.

Q: Be honest: how was the food?  A: The food was really, really good. Then again, we ate at the specialty restaurants (particularly for dinner). But we often ate lunch on port days in the buffet restaurant, as it was open the longest and we were working around excursions. The variety there was massive and I was impressed by the vegetarian offerings. Miss M. was thrilled that they had a pizza and pasta bar that was open continuously from 11am-10pm. Our favorite restaurant, by FAR, was the Japanese restaurant (Sushi on 5). That’s one you’ll have to pay for but it wasn’t hugely pricey and definitely worth it. My husband and I would have eaten there every day if we’d been able.

Q: Did you gain a ton of weight?  A: Well, I sure could have! Nobody is going to go hungry on that ship, especially if you love sweets. That gelato/patisserie/cappuccino bar is dangerous, man. And the pastries/croissants available at breakfast were stunning. Thank goodness we hiked a few days. YES, my pants are a little snug but it could have been a lot worse. Breakfast was pretty easy to keep healthy: they had gorgeous fruit platters and avocado toast and egg white omelets if that’s how you wanted to roll. Lunches I kept almost completely vegetarian (unless I ate at Sushi on 5), as the offerings were very good daily (lots of salad options, Indian vegetable curries, ratatouille, eggplant parm, veggie stir fry). Dinner I ate whatever I wanted and there were definitely treats, both of the dessert and alcoholic variety. So yep, back to Le Regime. But hey, it was vacation! You gotta live a little! And we did.

 

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Last week, we packed Miss M. up for her first-ever stint at sleepaway camp. I know that many, many kids have been packed up and sent (usually blissfully and with much excitement) to sleepaway camp for summers upon summers. They have gone at ages much younger and more tender than Miss M.’s age of 12. For some kids, that’s what summer’s all about, right? Days spent splashing into crystal lakes, hiking among nature’s bounty, endless games of capture the flag, songs and s’mores around the campfire, newly minted friendships that are all the more bittersweet because you know there’s a timeline involved.

For some kids, the time spent at camp is the highlight of the summer. Some kids love it so much that they return to the same camp year after year, excited to make new friends and thrilled beyond belief to see old ones from summers past.

Uh, that’s not my kid.

And I know that’s not my kid. I knew that when I asked her if she wanted to go, confident that she would say, “No way.”

But she didn’t say no.

She said yes, because one of her best friends from school was going, and Miss M. loves this friend. This friend has gone to summer camp a few times before and oh my goodness, camp is so much fun. It’s such an adventure. You get to do all of this cool stuff that you normally would never get to do.

This friend is wonderful and kind and not a liar, not by a long shot.

She’s also many things my daughter isn’t: outgoing, athletic, adaptable, independent, thrill-seeking.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Miss M., child who fell straight from her mother’s tree, our Little Miss Home Now, did not enjoy her first foray into sleepaway camp. That’s putting it mildly.

***

Excerpt from letter home:

Dear Mom,

Camp is okay. After you left, I had a hard time adjusting. I cried a lot that day and most of the next day, too…the food is okay (I have mostly eaten bread and water so far, but I haven’t been very hungry, anyways)…My cabin mates are very nice…I had a hard time sleeping the first night…I am also kind of afraid to use the showers here.

I do believe pickup time for end of camp is between 9 and 10 on Saturday?

***

Here’s the thing. I knew she would hate it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it and I sent her anyway. I realize that I should not feel guilty about this because she told me she wanted to go and she believed that she wanted to go, so of course you let the girl go, dammit, but I knew. And I still feel guilty. A little bit.

She did adjust. After two days of crying most of the day and night, she gathered herself and reserved her crying for nighttime for the duration of the week’s stay. They had ice cream there. Kayaking and boating didn’t suck and the day they went rafting was pretty neat. Her cabin-mates remained nice and she still dearly loves her friend. The showers remained creepy and the food stunk.

She survived and she was incredibly grateful to be picked up and returned to the things that make her world go ’round: quiet, routine, books, comfort, indoor environs, her own bed.

I cannot say I blame her.

She also had better enjoy home while she can, because we’re leaving again soon, although her digs will be much more amenable than a bug-filled log cabin. We’ll be floating.

First week of July, we leave for Alaska. There will be wildlife (I hope! The bigger and the wilder the better!) but from afar, on the comfort of a ship’s deck. There will be unfamiliar food, but those floating hotels have things called “dessert bars,” so I do believe she will be fine. Hopefully more than fine.

As for me, I’m a little nervous. I never, ever, thought I’d want to go on a cruise, even to Alaska. I’m an introvert, after all. If you are an introvert, is it a good idea to board a gi-normous vessel and strand yourself in the middle of the ocean with hundreds of people and shuffleboard on the Lido Deck? I’m not sure about that. Will there be a bartender named Isaac? I fervently hope so.

In preparation for a trip that boasts things like “dessert bars” and 24-hour room service and chocolate fondue fountains, I’ve tightened the grip on Le Regime until we depart. We’re going full throttle on the salads and the whole grains and the vegetarian meals. We still have our kitchen poltergeist, which honestly, given the travel schedule, I’m not going to be able to deal with properly until August, so we’re keeping things simple and clean and easy. This recipe fits the bill.

I’ve made it both as written and as the more salad-like option stated in the footnote, and both are tasty. For the hot summer days, I think I like the lemon vinaigrette version but I certainly also cannot argue with butter, so make the one that speaks to you most. Or make both.

If you have an eagle eye for detail and have been reading here for a while, you will notice the inclusion of fennel in this recipe, which is odd. I have made no bones about my hatred of fennel, particularly raw. But over this winter, as we were trying to eat more vegetable-forward meals, I roasted it and wasn’t unhappy. Then I got lazy and merely sauteed it on the stove and you know what? Wasn’t that unhappy, either. I was especially not unhappy when there’s a recipe like this, where you pair it with hearty, earthy shiitake mushrooms, snappy asparagus and sharp shards of salty cheese.

The universe is fucking with me, people. I am middle-aged and no longer recoil at fennel, as long as it’s cooked. My husband says that your taste buds start to fail you after a certain age and I must be there, because I daresay cooked fennel is pretty darn palatable. LOCK ME UP.

 

 

 

 

Mushroom and Asparagus Grain Bowl

adapted very slightly from Cooking Light

serves 4

 

1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

6 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced (about 3 cups)

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 large fennel bulb, fronds removed, bulb thinly sliced (about 3 cups) or 2 sweet onions, thinly sliced

8 ounces fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)

4 cups cooked farro or 2 (8 1/2 oz.) pkgs precooked microwaveable farro (such as Simply Balanced)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter*

1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/3 cup thinly sliced scallions

1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds or toasted chopped hazelnuts

1 ounce Parmesan cheese, shaved or grated (about 1/4 cup)**

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or flat-leaf parsley

 

Heat 1 1/2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms release their water and have browned, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a minute. Transfer mixture to a plate.

Reduce heat to medium and add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons oil to the skillet. Add sliced fennel and asparagus; cook until just tender, about 5-6 minutes. Transfer to plate.

If using microwaveable farro, prepare according to package directions (if using regular cooked farro, keep warm). Stir the butter, lemon zest, and lemon juice into warm farro.

Divide farro into bowls. Top with mushrooms, asparagus and fennel mixture, salt, pepper, scallions, toasted nuts, Parmesan and chopped herbs.

 

*Alternatively, if it’s just too dang hot outside to want buttery anything, you can mix 2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice, lemon zest and a dab of Dijon mustard together and toss with the farro. It works great if you want to eat this salad-y style (eg: room temperature or slightly chilled).

**1 ounce of cheese is pretty dang parsimonious. If you aren’t trying to bank calories for a “dessert bar” in your future, double it.

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We arrived home from Maui to a couple of oddities.

First, the weather in Colorado has been positively incendiary for early June. We’re talking mid-to-upper 90’s every dang day. June is usually mild and quite lovely, but we’re melting over here, particularly one little, fluffy dog. Poor Mozz-man has been hanging out in the bathroom because the tile floor is cold on his tender, wee belly. I can’t say I blame him. Weather like this makes me highly nervous, considering it’s wildfire season in the Rocky Mountains, and we’re well under normal levels for snowpack. We already have a couple of fires burning strong and summer’s barely begun. Luckily, Mother Nature has a few days of rain in the forecast this week, so I’m hoping the ground will get the drink it desperately needs.

Another peculiarity upon our return was the discovery that we have a poltergeist in our kitchen. It’s currently living in our oven and it’s causing all sorts of mischief. Sometimes the oven will work, sometimes it won’t, and sometimes it will work for a few minutes and then turn off spontaneously. When I go down to the basement electrical box and flip the breaker back and forth, it will re-start, only to fizzle out again two minutes later. Repeat process. It’s annoying as Hell and I’m not sure if it’s an oven issue or an electrical issue. The gas burners on top of the stove work fine. So who to call? The appliance guy? The electrician? An exorcist? Sometimes home ownership is completely confounding.

I mean, it’s so hot out that I’m not wanting to bake anything for an extended period of time, but it might be nice to stick a pizza in the oven or warm some bread once in a while.

The third oddity falls more into the “Bodily Assholery” category, although it’s just me who’s afflicted. The day after we got home from vacation, I developed a weird rash all over both of my legs. At first it was just the calves, but then it traveled down to my feet. Sometimes it itched, sometimes it just felt hot, and sometimes it just looked unsightly and I didn’t feel anything. I’ve been slathering cortisone cream and aloe vera gel all over those areas and it’s getting better. Then the ocular migraines started.

Ever had an ocular migraine?

You don’t want one. Feels like you’ve taken an ice pick and jammed it directly in your eyeball. It’s excruciating. I’ve only developed this bad bit of business within the past year, and I’ve been averaging about one every three months, which sucks but is something I can live with.

But since we got back from Hawaii, I’ve been getting one every 2-3 days. Not okay, man. Not okay at all.

All of this weirdness means a lot of takeout meals and low-maintenance cooking like salads and sandwiches. And while it’s really too hot out to want to spend more than a few minutes in the kitchen anyways, it’s a little depressing.

The one bright spot in the last couple of weeks is that I decided to try this salad recipe and it’s easy, fast and amazingly tasty. I was a little skeptical, since it’s pretty simple-sounding but everything about it just works.

It was so refreshing and crunchy and addictive that my Daddy-o and I polished off almost an entire bowl of it during a Sunday lunch. I feel quite confident saying that we could have made it into meal with just the addition of a cheese plate and some bread. And hey, if I don’t get that oven issue resolved, we just might be doing that an awful lot.

Even if you don’t have a kitchen poltergeist or some other oddity in your life, make this salad. It’ll become a summer staple.

 

 

The Crunchiest Vegetable Salad

serves 4

from Bon Appetit Magazine

 

Veg:

1/2 English hothouse cucumber, very thinly sliced

4 radishes, trimmed and very thinly sliced

2 scallions, thinly sliced

1 pound snap beans (such as green or wax)*

Kosher salt

4 ounces sugar snap peas

 

Dressing:

3 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds (I like the black ones, just because how cool are they?)

1/4 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt and black pepper

 

Place cucumber, radishes and scallions in a colander set in a bowl of ice water (use about 1 tablespoon salt for every 2 quarts water). Press down on the vegetables to submerge and let them sit for 15 minutes or up to an hour, stirring occasionally. Drain and pat dry.

Meanwhile, cook the beans in a large pot of salted water just until the color brightens, about a minute. Using a slotted spoon, transfer beans to ice water.

Add snap peas to the boiling water and take them out when their color intensifies (again about a minute). Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to the ice bath with the beans. Allow them to completely cool and then drain and pat dry. Trim the beans and remove the strings from the snap peas. Slice on the diagonal.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together and add to the vegetables. Toss to coat. Season with additional salt and pepper if desired.

*If, like me, you cannot find any decent green beans in the grocery store, just use the same amount of snap peas or snow peas. Or bump up the ratio of cucumber/radish. Be flexible!

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