Land of the Watchmen: The Queen Charlotte Islands
The spongy forest floor, studded with stumps and toadstools, looks like it's been draped with a damask of emerald moss. I'm standing still, transfixed by the twisted roots of a toppled Sitka spruce. The upended root bell, as it's called, must be 30 feet in diameter and has created an intimate alcove in the rain forest, fit for a troll fiesta. Awed, I reach for comparisons: It's like a Japanese Zen garden, maybe, or a glade of Ents, the walking trees from The Lord of the Rings.
"I know what you mean," chuckles James Williams, one of the Haida Watchmen who oversee significant native sites in the Queen Charlotte Islands. "It's totally Yoda's den in here."
Located off the west coast of British Columbia, the archipelago of more than 150 islands is sometimes referred to as Canada's Galápagos. Animals grow big (black bears can reach the size of Volkswagen Beetles), and plants grow odd (there's a genetically unique spruce with golden needles). Seabirds lay eggs in the roots of millennium-old cedars, and the waters remain populated by pods of whales. Bald eagles seem about as common here as pigeons in city parks. It's the kind of place that appears, in many ways, never to have changed.
And if forest preservation activists have their way, it won't be changing anytime soon. In February, after 10 years of vacillation on the initiative, the Canadian government vowed to protect more than five million acres of coastal rain forest from logging. If all goes as planned, by the end of 2006 that same protection will extend to include some of the Queen Charlottes.
The same isolation that allows a rich biodiversity to thrive has its downside: Getting to the islands isn't easy. The cheapest method is to drive 16 hours north from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, then take an eight-hour ferry across the rough Hecate Strait. I opted for Plan B: a two-hour flight ($155 each way) from Vancouver to Sandspit Airport on a twin-propeller Dash 8.
Most visitors use Queen Charlotte City (pop. 1,000) as a base to explore the islands, which are known as Haida Gwaii, or "Place of the People," to the islands' 2,000 Haida natives. (There's one other branch of the Haida people, called the Kaigani; they live on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island.) The city is on the south end of Graham Island, the archipelago's largest. It's a pretty low-key place: Fishing boats bob in the small harbor, and seaplanes wait by the pier. There's not a single chain hotel, store, or fast-food restaurant. Locals don't like to use cell phones. And the area businesses tend to multitask in interesting ways. I made sure to show up for a salmon dinner at Queen B's, a restaurant that also sells Tibetan prayer flags. Premier Creek Lodging, a 12-room cedar hotel originally built for steamship passengers in 1910, does double duty as a car-rental agency.
But no one comes to the Queen Charlottes for the city life. Most travelers' main destination is the stunning Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (Gwaii Haanas is "Place of Wonder" in Haida, which is also the name of the language), co-managed by the Haida and the Canadian government. A particular highlight I was intent on seeing is Ninstints on Anthony Island (SGaang Gwaii), the ruins of an old Haida village. It's one of the few places in the world where ancient totem poles are still in their original setting.
Without a private float plane or a $1,500-a-night reservation at a posh sportfishing lodge, getting from Queen Charlotte City to Gwaii Haanas takes some serious planning. Or so I learned at the Visitor Information Centre in Queen Charlotte City. Only 300 visitors are allowed into the park each day during high season, from May to October, and (other, better-organized) people start reserving summer permits on February 1. There are no designated campgrounds; a free lecture on low-impact camping and safety is required for those who choose to go in their own boats. Most people, however, travel with a guide, and get to skip the lesson.
As a solo traveler without a reservation, I had one option: to leave my name with one of several charter companies, such as Moresby Explorers or South Moresby Air, which lead excursions to Anthony Island. I gave my phone number to South Moresby Air, hoping fellow adventurers would also drop by and be willing to share the substantial cost of a day's charter.
While waiting for the call over the next few days, I took a series of day trips around Graham Island, where the bulk of the Queen Charlottes' 5,000 residents live. I followed the island's only highway through the east coast community of Tlell and then headed inland, passing so many pint-size black-tailed deer that they started to look like lawn ornaments. There are only 54 miles of paved highway on Graham Island, and in Naikoon Provincial Park, the asphalt soon gave way to dirt. The cedar trees were tightly packed. Their branches were blanketed with moss--at times, it grew into bulbous shapes that called to mind cocoons of hibernating aliens. Naikoon is a protected wilderness area, but there's also one comfortable beachfront place to stay, the Alaska View Lodge on the northernmost coast.
Near Tow Hill, the sea had receded a quarter of a mile, revealing scuttling crabs and giant purple starfish. Beachcombers in hip-length waders scanned the sand for the telltale holes of razor clams. On Agate Beach--sprinkled with milky stones tumbled smooth by the tides--I watched surfers doing their thing, and was able to see Alaska in the distance.
Until 1997, a 300-year-old Sitka spruce mutant, famous for its golden needles, stood on the banks of the Yakoun River, three miles south of Port Clements. Sacred to the Haida, the golden spruce was chopped down by a woodsman-turned-activist, Grant Hadwin, in a misguided attempt to draw attention to the effects of logging in British Columbia. (It's rumored that Hadwin later faked his drowning, and that he still roams in the woods.) Today, only the stump remains, and to get to the old viewing spot requires a 10-minute hike through old-growth forest. I found a hopeful epilogue to the sad story at the Port Clements Historical Society and Museum: Photos showed another, smaller, golden spruce growing on Graham Island. Fortunately for its long-term prospects, this one is only accessible by helicopter.
I still hadn't gotten that call, so I booked a room at Copper Beech House in Masset. A sprawling cedar house built by a Swedish carpenter in 1914, the B&B is surrounded by a garden of rhododendrons and poppies. The drive from Queen Charlotte City took about 90 minutes, and I arrived just in time for a buffet of halibut sashimi; smoked oolichans, oily fish eaten head and all; and rhubarb and salal berry pie.
Owner David Phillips, a self-taught cook, used to be an interior designer in Toronto. How he ended up in the Queen Charlottes is quite a story. "In 1971, I tried to circumnavigate the islands in a rowboat, in black dancing pumps," he said. "I got to the west coast, which is like the Emperor's Garden--these three-mile, deserted sandy beaches, with one rocky outcrop after another--and my boat started to sink. Fortunately, a fishing boat came along at the last minute and threw me a line." Phillips's only serious culinary competition is Roberta Olson. She's a Haida grandmother who runs a regular event called Dinner at Keenawii's (her Haida name) at her house in Skidegate. After serving her guests lavish seafood meals, Olson encourages them to toss salmon scraps to the bald eagles on the beach outside.
In Old Masset, I stopped for a cappuccino at Haida Rose, an Internet café, where I struck up a conversation with a gentleman wearing a fedora woven from cedar bark. In addition to being a spokesman for the Haida Nation, Gilbert Parnell is occasionally a tour guide, and he kindly agreed to show me around Skidegate (pop. 750), the islands' largest Haida community.
We began at the Haida Heritage Centre at Qay'llnagaay, a 53,000-square-foot complex opening next spring that will include a performance space, museum, restaurant, gift shop, and more. "People on Haida Gwaii are getting out of the traditional fishing and logging industries," Parnell said, with the polished tones of a radio announcer, "and each year we're seeing the Haida people becoming more involved in tourism. The Heritage Centre is a good example." Another example is Aay Oo Guiding Services, which offers an environmentally sound alternative to expensive lodges: Native guides take small groups out in four-passenger power boats to do a limited amount of sportfishing.
"We've got some things happening, cross-culturally, that I think the world has to look at," said Parnell. He drove me to a workshop where craftsmen carve cedar canoes and make jewelry from argillite, a soft, black slate that only the Haida are allowed to mine. Though Skidegate's native population is among the fastest-growing in all of Canada, only 30 people still speak Haida fluently. The Skidegate Haida Immersion Project was designed to preserve the language: Elders create teaching materials, including glossaries and workbooks, to be used in schools.
Our last stop was a popular stretch of beach just north of Roberta Olson's house. The tide was out, fully exposing Balance Rock, a six-foot-wide boulder poised on a pivot point not a whole lot bigger than a dinner plate. A campfire was burning nearby, and Parnell bowed his head as he crumbled a cigarette into the flames--an impromptu Haida offering to ensure comfort and security for his family.
Later that afternoon, South Moresby Air called to say they had a place for me on a plane leaving the next morning. I met up with Brad Koop, the pilot, and my fellow passengers, a nice couple from Alberta. Sharing the Cessna meant that I paid $561, versus $1,500 if I'd gone alone.
We flew south, over forests and abandoned logging camps, finally landing in Rose Harbour, the only private land in the national park. Patrick Lemaire, a tall, bearded French Canadian, met us at the dock. Lemaire first came to Moresby Island in the 1970s, before it was designated as a park, and he now runs the funky, solar-panel-heated Gwaii Haanas Guest House with his wife and two sons. Rooms start at just $96--a fraction of the cost of airfare to get down there--so Lemaire arranges discount flights for guests.
After helping us transfer to a Zodiac inflatable boat with a rubber duck mounted on the bow, Lemaire introduced us to a 24-year-old Haida Watchman named James Williams. Employed by the Canadian government to oversee tourists visiting Gwaii Haanas, the Watchmen function as both guides and custodians. They stay in cabins near the park's cultural sites to lead tourists around once they arrive and to make sure the sites remain well protected. It was a 20-minute, wave-tossed passage to reach our goal, Anthony Island. Along the way, we zipped past schools of leaping herring and sent two rare horned puffins furiously flapping into the distance.
At Ninstints, the ancient village on the beach, Williams took us to a sun-bleached red cedar pole with the image of a bear carved in it--"a mortuary pole," he explained. The notch in the top of the pole, one of 21 along the beach, was used to hold a box with the bones of a native who, in all likelihood, was killed by smallpox. The virus was a major influence in the decimation of the Haida population, which went from more than 10,000 before 1774 (the first year of contact with Europeans) to less than 1,000 in 1911. This particular village, once home to 300 people, was abandoned in the 1870s. All that remains of its 20 longhouses are sunken pits, fallen beams, and the totem poles. In Haida belief, totem poles are meant to be left alone until they return naturally to the earth, so the ones on Ninstints's beach are all being allowed to slump, with glacial dignity, to the ground.
Back in the Cessna, as we flew over Hecate Strait, Koop saw a column of vapor, and we banked sharply to get a better look at a family of humpback whales--two adults and a calf--feeding on schools of krill. The ocean was teeming with life. Sea lions, which looked like grains of brown rice from our perspective, sunned themselves on rocks, and seagulls flocked over orange bands of plankton. Pods of slender fin whales bellowed beneath the plane, their exhaled spray creating rainbows. We spotted a dozen, two dozen, and finally gave up counting.
And then the plane landed in the sheltered bay of Hotspring Island. Also accessible by boat, the island was a $63 add-on to the charter plane fee, and well worth it. After tying up the plane, we met a soft-spoken Watchman who pointed us to a site more therapeutic than cultural: shorefront hot springs, filled with sulfur-rich water. Stripping to my briefs, I made a dash for the frigid breakers, and when I was good and chilled, clambered into the pool. Leaning against the smooth rock wall, I tingled with the kind of glow you get after a day at a bathhouse. Giant ravens stood guard, 100-foot-tall spruce trees provided the decor, and best of all, there was not a single trace of what is today known as civilization.
In the hope of filling up vacant tee times, golf courses around the country slash prices for last-minute reservations--sometimes you pay less than half the normal greens fees. Certain websites serve as clearinghouses, accepting discounted reservations at dozens of courses, generally only for the same or next day. Your best bet for openings is off-peak periods--most anytime except for weekends, holidays, and mid-mornings. Before booking, do your homework and inquire with the course for updated prices. Many sites that seem to offer discounts tack on service fees and actually charge more than the course itself. Teetimesamerica.com Well, the southern and western parts of America, anyway. That's where most of the hundreds of courses represented are located. For one last-minute search in the Phoenix area, dozens of offers appeared, with discounts of 10 to 60 percent off. Lastminutegolfer.com Discounts are available not only for next-day reservations, but also for the occasional tee time booked several weeks in advance, at hundreds of courses in Massachusetts, North Carolina, Florida, and 11 other states, as well as select locations in Canada. For same-day reservations, you'll have to call 800/671-0750. Click4teetimes.com There's a wide spectrum of discounts for southern California courses. We found savings in the San Diego area that ranged from a measly $6 off a $65 fee at The Vineyard at Escondido to more than half off the $95 fee at Riverwalk Golf Club.
Why Haven't You Heard Of Bardstown, Kentucky?
The smell is the first thing you'll notice: vanilla, some caramel. That's the scent of bourbon in the air. Workers at nearby distilleries call the fumes "the angel's share"--a fitting term, considering that this town about 40 miles south of Louisville is home to both whiskey men and monks. The area once claimed more than 20 distilleries. Only two (Barton and Heaven Hill) remain, but Bards-town still calls itself the Bourbon Capital of the World. Most downtown shops do their part, stocking bourbon-related merchandise--no matter where it's made--including whiskey-flavored chocolate and cigars. The Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History conveys a healthier appreciation of America's only native spirit. In a former seminary building, the museum has Prohibition-era labels saying for medicinal use (114 N. 5th St., 502/348-2999, free). In 1848, a group of monks from France settled in nearby hills and founded the Abbey of Gethsemani, the nation's oldest--and most incongruously located--Trappist monastery. The brothers host spiritual retreats; guests come for at least two days and donate whatever they can. "And if you can't pay this year, send us what you can, or pay us next year," says Brother Thaddeus (3642 Monks Rd., Trappist, 502/549-3117, monks.org). If lodging with the pious doesn't appeal, why not sleep with the ghosts of sinners? The Jailer's Inn has six guest rooms in a former jail. A full breakfast with French toast and fresh strawberries is served in the courtyard, the former location of the gallows (111 W. Stephen Foster Ave., 800/948-5551, jailersinn.com, from $80). For a look at more peaceful days on the frontier, take a tour of Old Bardstown Village, a cluster of restored log cabins dating from the 1700s (310 E. Broadway, 502/349-0291, civil-war-museum.org, $2.50). Fast-forward a hundred years at the Federal Hill Plantation House, which showcases 19th-century Southern aristocratic life (501 E. Stephen Foster Ave., 502/348-3502, tours $5.50). The mansion, in My Old Kentucky Home State Park, was home to the prominent Rowan family. Guides in antebellum costumes spin yarns about how composer Stephen Foster had such a fine stay in 1852 that he immortalized the place by writing "My Old Kentucky Home," now the state song. Six days a week in summer, locals gather in the park's amphitheater to immortalize him, too, in Stephen Foster--The Musical (800/626-1563, from $16).
1. Former Prada model Miguel Duarte shows off his eye for all things aesthetic at his Café Heróis, which has lime-green walls and mod white furniture. By day, there are toasted sandwiches and inventive salads such as the Brazilian, with pineapple, mango, cheese, ham, and yogurt dressing ($7.50). After 10 p.m., the café morphs into a mellow cocktail lounge. Calçada do Sacramento 14, 011-351/213-420-077 2. Every item in Alma Lusa ("Portuguese soul") is manufactured within the country. The house specialty is whimsical jewelry--necklaces fashioned from steel zippers ($60), pins in the shape of sushi rolls ($10). The boutique sells playful furniture, too, including beanbag chairs custom-made with brightly colored canvas in place of pleather ($263). Rua do Carmo 17, 011-351/213-432-039 3. Amo.te Chiado, one of the five Amo.te cafés throughout the country, publishes a monthly arts-and-entertainment magazine of the same name. In addition, the café hands out free guides to surrounding areas, with especially useful listings on the hottest nightclubs and bars in Bairro Alto, Chiado's hillier--and rowdier--next-door neighbor. Calçada Nova de São Francisco 2, 011-351/213-420-668, amote.clix.pt 4. Perhaps inspired by Lisbon's storied contemporary art museum Museu do Chiado, also in the neighborhood, Mousse blurs the line between gallery and shop, at least in the way items are displayed. But the objects--everything from an old-fashioned women's toiletries kit with 1920s packaging ($56) to hand-crocheted lampshades (from $204)--are all for sale. Rua das Flores 41-43, 011-351/213-420-781 5. With only two racks, José António Tenente has fewer pieces of clothing in his boutique than most people have in their closets. Leading up to Lisbon's biannual Fashion Week (in March and October), the designer slashes prices by as much as 80 percent to make way for his new sleek suit jackets and evening gowns. Travessa do Carmo 8, 011-351/213-422-560 6. At the rooftop terrace bar at the luxurious Bairro Alto Hotel, the views stretch across the Tagus River and take in the Ponte 25 de Abril (a dead ringer for San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge) and another Lisbon landmark: an illuminated, 360-foot-tall statue of Christ. Sipping a caipirinha ($10), visitors might wonder if they aren't in another Portuguese-speaking place, Rio de Janeiro. Praça Luís de Camões 8, 011-351/213-408-288, bairroaltohotel.com 7. Sisters Teresa and Joana Figueredos stock original paintings and handmade jewelry at their Lua de Champagne. Teresa, a former architect, sells her own abstract paintings (from $178). Her little sibling Joana's original designs include red pom-pom earrings (from $12). Each purchase gets popped into a miniature plastic bag and then sprinkled with a handful of sequins. Rua do Ferragial 3, 011-351/213-431-684 8. Hotels in Lisbon don't come cheap (see #6, where rooms start at $330). Hotel Borges is the rare good deal. It isn't going to win any style points, but the hotel has a central location on the main drag. A breakfast of coffee and rolls with jam, served in a stately room lit by chandeliers, is included in the rate. Rua Garrett 108, 011-351/213-461-951, lisbonhotelborges.com, from $78
A Long Weekend in Tucson Is Hot Stuff
It's 10 p.m. at the Hotel Congress, the neon-lit epicenter of bohemia in Tucson. In Club Congress, the hotel's cavernous nightclub, a local avant-garde French pop singer, Marianne Dissard, is warbling a French song about love's "little lies" with unusual forcefulness. She's accompanied on electric guitar by her husband, the improbably named Naim Amor. But while there's nothing flawed about Naim's guitar playing, there's no mistaking who's the star of this show. A documentary filmmaker and all-around Tucson scenester, Dissard has the martini-sipping crowd of about 75 wrapped around her finger. "Tonight is a very special night for me," she says, squinting through the glare of the stage lights. "I am celebrating the 10th anniversary of when I moved to Tucson. I feel so glad I found this amazing, diverse, artistic city. I love you all." The audience whoops loudly. "You tell it, sister!" one man shouts. Earlier that afternoon, an innkeeper was using similar adjectives to describe Tucson: "It's arts-oriented, tolerant, and culturally diverse," said Jeff DiGregorio, co-owner of the Royal Elizabeth B&B Inn, in a 128-year-old adobe mansion downtown. "I'm biased, but I think we're very intellectual, too." All this enthusiasm can get suspiciously fervent, but there must be something to it. Tucson, 120 miles southeast of Phoenix, has long been known as a laid-back Southwestern cowboy city with near-perfect weather; lately, the town of 510,000 is making more noise. Says DiGregorio, "Tucson has the culture of L.A., but with the intimacy of Santa Fe." The 1930s-era Hotel Congress has one foot in the past and the other in the present. There's an Old West-style bar (the Tap Room), a sleek separate restaurant (the Cup Café), retro rooms, and neon signs throughout. Then again, not everyone wants to sleep above a nightclub. The Royal Elizabeth--or The Liz, as it's known around town--is furnished in a style DiGregorio calls an "antiques medley," where pieces from the Victorian, craftsman, and art deco eras casually coexist. DiGregorio, a Tucson native, and his partner, Chuck Bressi, were living in Washington, D.C., when they saw the building online and bought it sight unseen. Two weeks later, they moved to Tucson and got to work. Bressi handles the books and the cooking--and amuses guests with his quiet wit. DiGregorio, meanwhile, is a walking encyclopedia of downtown history. He also always seems to be around to help when it's time to make dinner plans. The restaurant where he's most likely to send guests is the nouveau Mexican Café Poca Cosa. Suzana Davila, the café's waifish chef, is a former model from Guaymas, Mexico, and she imported her love of mole, a rich sauce made with chocolate, red wine, and chilis. Handwritten chalkboard menus at each table change daily. If a diner gives Davila carte blanche, she'll recommend her favorite: a chocolateless Oaxacan mole verde--made from pumpkin seeds, pistachios, cilantro, and serrano peppers. Another part of downtown, along 4th Avenue, is considerably funkier. There are counterculture bookstores, and, this being the Southwest, there are shops selling therapeutic crystals. The unofficial mayor of the avenue is Dominique Francesca. She's often found standing in the doorway of Café Jinx, surveying the scene. Francesca is also an artist and photographer, and the café's expert cook; her baby spinach frittata and dark French Roast coffee are hits with the rock bands rolling through Tucson. Francesca hasn't always been a fixture here, though it often seems that way. She explains that she spent half of the '90s "getting my head together" on a road trip in her Chevy Suburban. Upon arriving in Tucson, she ditched her Suburban for a room at the Hotel Congress, and met artists who convinced her to settle in town for good. "The city has quite a funky groove," she says. "I guess I sort of feed off it." A mission beyond downtown Like so many Western cities, Tucson has its share of sprawl. It's worth braving for the ghostly San Xavier del Bac Mission (1950 W. San Xavier Rd., 520/294-2624, free), near the Tohono O'odham reservation southwest of town. Built by Franciscans in 1797, the white adobe church has spectacular arches, domes, and towers. One of the better craft stands outside the mission is a Hopi jewelry shop called Loo-Lol-Ma's. What stands out are the fetishes, alabaster Zuni charms that come in different animal shapes. Lodging Hotel Congress 311 E. Congress St., 520/622-8848, hotelcongress.com, rooms from $69 Royal Elizabeth B&B Inn 204 S. Scott Ave., 877/670-9022, royalelizabeth.com, rooms from $115 Food Café Poca Cosa 88 E. Broadway Blvd., 520/622-6400, Oaxacan mole verde $18 Café Jinx 344 N. 4th Ave., no phone, spinach frittata $4
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