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Portland: Handcrafted Beer and a Unique Hotel Experience

Where to stay? Too many elements to consider when you look for a unique experience at a hotel. In Portland, it happened by accident or coincidence. I was supposed to have stayed just one night in Portland and move on the next morning. Since I began my road trip, it was my plan to avoid cities and focus on national parks. This was not meant to be a visit to urban areas; rather, it was about camping and hiking. Nonetheless, it turned out that I stopped by and stayed in a few cities because of how many hours I had been driving, or because there was not another option. Also, sometimes I needed to have good internet service, do laundry, and take care of other practical chores.

A few times on the road I came to cities where I knew someone. In Portland I knew a former employee who had worked for me in New York. After my first night in town, I spoke with him early in the morning and he offered to reserve a room for me at his hotel because he wanted me to see where he was working. He thought that having worked in hospitality, I would enjoy staying at the Kennedy School. So, instead of move on I stayed a second night in Portland. He was absolutely right! What a unique experience! The charm of the hotel is in its simplicity and austere feel of an old school. However, it was the atmosphere created by a relaxed and genuine costumer service that made my experience exceptional.

Main entrance hall of the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School - Portland, Oregon
Main entrance hall of the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School – Portland, Oregon
Blackboard in one guestrooms at the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School - Portland, Oregon
Blackboard in one guestrooms at the historic hotel McMenamins Kennedy School – Portland, Oregon

Now a hotel that houses a brewery, the Kennedy School had operated as an elementary school for over one-hundred years. After many years of abandonment, the old school was transformed into a hotel. One thing that makes it charming and unique is that it still looks and feels like a school, and preserves the history of the Kennedy Elementary School. Classrooms are now guest rooms. As I entered my room, the first thing I saw was the original classroom blackboard on which the word “Welcome” was written in chalk!!! Today this piece of rescued piece of Portland’s history, offers more than a classroom where you can comfortably sleep without being sent home with a note to your parents. And it is okay to have a beer or two in this old school!

Today, the McMenamins Kennedy School houses a movie theater, a restaurant, a cigar bar, a small bar, a larger lounge, and a brewery. What really captivated me was the restaurant where I had a wonderful brunch before leaving Portland. The decoration displays a collection of non-matching exotic lamps and other exotic objects. The waiters and staff do not wear uniforms and are encouraged to be themselves, bringing in their individual personalities. The unique experience made for a great way to start my day. There’s something very uplifting and motivating about an environment where people seem to enjoy what they are doing.

Unique gas lamp at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Unique light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

The Courtyard Restaurant is set in the transformed cafeteria of the old school. From the moment I stepped in to have brunch, I could not take my eyes off the eclectic collection of light fixtures. Each of them is unique! On a corner closer to the bar, an old gas lamp was probably one of my favorite. Alas, it is

Colorful light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Colorful light fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

hard to pick a favorite with so many never seen before designs and styles. Another feature of the restaurant are the old, comfortable mahogany booths. They transport you back in time and make you feel like are in the old childhood schools from the past. It does give a touch of distinguished character to the restaurant and to the experience of eating there, except for the beer that pours throughout this old school. The Courtyard also is unique for serving handcrafted ales brewed just a few steps away on the onsite brewery.

Gas lamp fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Gas lamp fixture at the Courtyard Restaurant at the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

In the age of “cookie-cutters” hotel chains that promises a unique guest experience but in the end turn out to be the same everywhere you stay, unique hotels are my favorites. It does not have to be the most luxurious hotel, nor the most well-known hotels. What really catches my attention is the uniqueness of hotels that have unmatched characteristics and appeal. Working in the hospitality industry, I heard too many guests ask “where am I today” because hotels that lack that unique charm and personality look exactly the same anywhere you stay. For frequent guests who travel on business for most part of the year, the standard design and décor of brand hotels may bring some comforting sensation of being at the same place day in day out. But, for the leisure traveler who wants to experience the uniqueness of each destination, historic and boutique art hotels have more to offer.  That was what my one night stay at the McMenamins Kennedy School in Portland was all about. There, not only the architecture of the building and its decoration make a clear distinction, but it spells out the character of Oregon! One of the hallmarks of Portland is the high concentration of breweries and its people’s love for great handcrafted beers. At the McMenamins Kennedy School, the passion for beer takes center stage!

Another feature of the McMenamins Kennedy School, is the soaking pool. Guests have complimentary access to the soaking pool, and the public can also have access to it for a fee. Surrounded by gardens, the soaking pool is a relaxing treat to be enjoyed. It is located in the old Teachers’ Lounge and it is decorated with multi-colored ceramic tiles. After relaxing in the soaking pool, it was time to enjoy the evening at the Cypress Room Bar. Rated as one of the best bars in its category, the Cypress Room is a rum bar. It has a Caribbean vibe with a great selection of rum and reggae music, making it the perfect place for a happy hour or that night cap, all of which offers a unique experience. However, if you prefer beer, housing a brewery onsite, the hotel has plenty of options to enjoy a good beer.

Art work on the hallways of the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland - Oregon
Art work on the hallways of the McMenamins Kennedy School, Portland – Oregon

My friend in Portland was right! Staying one extra night in town and experiencing a day back in school was a unique experience. It turned out that I never left the hotel from the moment I checked in. And, I didn’t have to; this historic elementary school transformed into a hotel has everything to keep you busy and entertained within its walls.

Speaking of walls, they are covered with art work in the rooms and corridors depicting scenes and moments in the history of the old Kennedy Elementary School. Even if you are not an overnight guest, grab a beer or a cocktail and walk around to check the art around you. I visited Portland multiple times in the past, but this was a delightful surprise.  It was a memorable moment and a unique experience on my road trip. Just one of those surprises that came around and made me forget the last of days on the road and made me look forward to the days ahead in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

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Crater Lake: Winter Wonderland and Beyond

A Winter wonderland in Oregon! Officially it was Spring, but not at Crater Lake National Park. The park was still closed allowing access to the public only in limited areas. The temperature was only twenty-nine degrees with snow still falling. Periodically, the fast moving clouds would allow the blue skies to be seen through the clouds. It would in a matter of minutes give way to snow and gray skies. The dome in the middle of the crater looked majestic in its insular silent isolation. Aside from a few people here and there, the wind which blew in intermittent whistling gusts was the only sound that broke the silence.

Crater Lake, Oregon
Crater Lake, Oregon

Located at the crest of the Cascade Mountain Range, Crater Lake National Park is, according to the park’s brochure, one of the snowiest inhabited places in America. Since the ranger’s service began tracking snow falls in the park in 1931, the 1930’s was the snowiest period receiving an average 614 inches of snow during that decade.

Winter Wonderland at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Winter Wonderland at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Overall, the average annual snowfall at the park’s headquarters, by decade, has been on a downward trend. The lowest snowfall per decade was registered in the 2010’s which averaged on 377 inches: the decade of the 2000’s averaged 455 inches per year. The 2014-2015 Winter/Spring season registered the lowest ever snowfall, receiving only 43 feet of snow. The consequences of declining snowfalls could be catastrophic to the ecosystem in the region. Besides feeding the Rogue, Umpqua, and Klamath Rivers, the very existence of the lake in the crater is dependent on water that comes from the sky. The lake in the crater does is not fed by rivers or streams and less snow and less rain could significantly change the landscape in the caldera at the mountain top.

Hiking and snowshoeing were out of the question as the trail surrounding the lake was closed. On the other hand, it was encouraging to know that the snowfall level was higher than that of the prior year. And as all camping sites where I could camp were relatively too far from the lake, it was time to wrap up my short visit to the park. After taking some pictures around the lake and visiting the coffee shop and the restroom, which looked more like a military underground bunker, it was time to get on the road before it got late and dark to drive down from the mountain top. Spending the night in Klamath Falls before heading to the coast on my way to Portland, Oregon was the best plan for the night.

Until now, this was the most complicated part of the road trip. I had reached a point of exhaustion and I was feeling a bit homesick. Perhaps the weather condition was making me feel a little anxious, because it was getting more and more difficult to find a national park that was open for camping and hiking. The distances to travel in a day to reach the next destination was getting longer and longer with nothing in between to make for a great stop. Undeniably, the landscape couldn’t be more appealing to the eye. However, with sorter Winter days, I could not afford to remain in one location for too long before getting dark. Even short distances became long because the driving conditions were not good.Traveling alone in Winter conditions requires a little more caution and coffee. The music and a cup of coffee were the only comfort to keep me company.

It was getting dark when I left Crater Lake and as I came down the mountain, the snow had given way to freezing rain. With a hotel reserved in Klamath Falls, I knew that I had a bed and a much needed hot shower waiting for me. The rain had stopped when I arrived at the hotel, but it was windy and cold. After checking in, I headed out to try and have dinner. It was already past ten and the only place still serving some food in town was an Irish tavern. The food was not anything to brag about, but it was the first time I had a hot meal in five days. Besides, after hiking all that I hiked in the past few days, I could absorb some fatty food.

At the rim of the lake at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
At the rim of the lake at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

The next morning I got up early and tried the breakfast that was included with my room. It was not a good breakfast! Everything seemed to be prepackaged food and even the coffee was not drinkable. Nonetheless, it was my chance to do laundry at the hotel that morning and reorganize the car. I knew that from that point on, I would need to make the winter clothes more accessible. A search about the destinations I had mind in the Pacific Northwest revealed that most of them were still closed. It crossed my mind to turn around and head south, but I was determined to make it to Seattle.

I left Klamath Falls knowing that it was going to be a long drive to Portland, Oregon. Trying to avoid the snowy day in the mountains, I decided to take Route 38 heading west to US-101 northbound. Before getting to the coastline, I stopped in Elkton to have a real, old American style breakfast for lunch. After a quick stop to watch some of the local wildlife, I drove west toward the Pacific shores again. Still without a hotel reservation in Portland, I was open to the idea of finding a place to camp somewhere between Dunes City and Florence.

Elks in Elkton, Oregon
Elks in Elkton, Oregon
Seashore nearby Florence, Oregon
Seashore nearby Florence, Oregon

Back home in New York, Eric was a little worried about this part of my road trip. We were constantly in contact with each other and discussing the weather conditions and the obstacles that I was starting to encounter. He continued to motivate me to push on and at the same time he wanted to make sure that I was safe, staying warm, and most importantly; having a good time.

It turned out that Dunes City was just a drive through at that time of the year. Nothing was happening there. By the time I made it to Florence, I had called Eric and he made a reservation for me in Portland. Now I would have to make to Portland no matter how late I would arrive there. Trying to find a place to explore and enjoy had become a waste of time.

It was around mid afternoon that I found, almost by accident, the Sea Lion Caves on US-101, Florence, Oregon. I had never heard about the Oregon’s Sea Lion Caves, which is one of the largest in the world. It turned out to be a great surprise on the road. It brought me back to a better mood and my visit to the caves made me forget the somewhat exhausting, worrisome last couple of days. Hundreds of sea lions were in the caves that day. Watching tens of them swimming the strong waves and trying to make to the caves or to climb on the rocks was a spectacular, rare event.

Sea Lions in the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, Oregon
Sea Lions in the Sea Lion Caves in Florence, Oregon

Feeling somehow energized I got back on the road toward Portland. The plan was to stay in Portland for just one night as a stop over because my next destination where I planned to camp was Fort Stevens in the mouth of the Columbia River, before crossing into Washington. I arrived in Portland under heavy rain and checked into the hotel just before nine that evening. It felt good to be off the road! It was time order some take out food, download the pictures, and recharge batteries.

Lighthouse under thick mist nearby Florence, Oregon
Lighthouse under thick mist nearby Florence, Oregon


From the Shores to the Mountains

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Gay Travel: Why ‘Gay Travel’ and How Gays Travel?

Why gay travel in the first place? Adam, from, writing for a column published at Nomadic Matt How Gay Travel is Different (and Why it Matters), contended that “It’s about safety, it’s about comfort, it’s about politics. But it’s also about welcoming events, friendly accommodations, and having fun with similar travelers.” Adam summarized it succinctly and nailed it! Those of us who know the meaning of the ‘turn-off’ experience of getting the ‘funny look’, know that paying the same price as other travelers and getting second class treatment is painful. A fact that led to the coining of the expression ‘pink dollar’. Simply put: the LGBTQ community got tired of paying the same price to in return be discriminated by businesses that dispensed different service and treatment based on their customers’ sexual orientation.

View from a cafe on Rue des Archives in the gay neighborhood of Le Marais - Paris, France
View from a cafe on Rue des Archives in the gay neighborhood of Le Marais – Paris, France

I recently wrote in my blog Tel  Aviv: Middle East’s Most Gay Friendly City that it is not only the Tel Aviv’s Pride Festival that attracts travelers from most corners of the world.  Tel Aviv has earned its place on the list of top LGBTQ travel destinations because it is truly welcoming and inclusive. It is not a reputation that a business garners just by placing a sticker on the window. Neither is won by countries or cities that run ads targeting the LGBTQ community. It is won through attitude toward visitors who genuinely feel that they are welcome.

If there is one thing that I have learned about visiting places that are not gay friendly, is that uncomfortable feeling of relinquishing the freedom to be myself and going back into the closet. Even if it’s for just a few days, that is something that most of us are not going to do. Politics aside, economics matters! If I am going to drop some money into someone’s economy, I want to see a deeper commitment to equality and inclusiveness by governments. I also want to see that the local population is embracing those principles as well. And there is the issue of safety that is crucial to any traveler, but so much more relevant to LGBTQ travelers who can fall victims of violence just for being who they are.

I travel solo! Hence, the name of my website! However, gays tend to travel in groups; either with a small or large group of friends, or join in large travel groups such as cruises.

Rue des Archives in the heart of Le Marais - Paris, France
Rue des Archives in the heart of Le Marais – Paris, France

In the gay community, friends are family; and family travels together! That’s the simple truth! But there are other reasons which include ‘the more, the merrier’ element to have a great party. Safety justifies why traveling in group makes so much more sense because harassment can happen, as it has occurred even in gay friendly countries and cities. Nowhere is completely safe! Harassment and violence against an LGBTQ person can happen even in places known for their openness, such as San Diego, New York, Paris, or London.

Remarkably, in a city that elected a gay mayor, Paris offers that sense of safety to its LGBTQ population and visitors alike. Just a few blocks from the City Hall, in the Le Marais which is also known as Paris gayborhood the relaxed atmosphere of countless cafes, restaurants, and clubs is just one example of gay friendly destination. More importantly, the overwhelming attitude of Parisians is that of respect, friendliness, and welcoming. It’s a behavior and attitude that reflects its treatment to visitors as ‘people’, regardless of sexual orientation; as it should be anywhere else. However, that’s not the reality we live in. Therefore, we choose where to go and where not to go; making ‘gay travel’ relevant and necessary.

Enjoying the safety and beauty of gay friendly Paris
Enjoying the safety and beauty of gay friendly Paris

Sadly, there are the countries like Russia, Egypt, India, and Turkey currently deemed too dangerous to visit as an LGBTQ person. Their laws criminalizing homosexuality is a violation of human rights and a warning to gay travelers to stay away. However, they are not the only ones to be avoided because there are over 70 countries where homosexuality is still illegal and considered a crime.

Besides the fact that traveling as part of a group adds a sense of being ‘safer’, it can also reduce costs from car rental to sharing accommodations, renting a beach house, or sharing an apartment. Nonetheless, there is a sizeable number of gay travelers who travel solo, which can be a bit more challenging than traveling with friends.

Gay solo travel means you are on your own! However, it does not mean that you are alone. It means you will experience the local culture a bit more in depth. Forcibly, you will connect with other travelers and interact with more locals than just your waiter at a café or the cab driver. I admit that when traveling solo, the comfort zone that most of us enjoy staying in so much, is the first thing to go off the window. Although our comfort zone is not the first thing that we are willing to surrender, it can be rewarding for those who are daring travelers and seek to really get out there. In such case, it becomes more important to stick to your own kind. That’s when ‘gaycation’ becomes a real thing. It means visiting gay friendly destinations, gay events, and supporting those economies and neighborhoods that support and welcome you for who you are.

Backpacking in the wilderness area of Zion National Park, Utah
Backpacking in the wilderness area of Zion National Park, Utah

Many of the activities I like doing and hobbies I have are not gay per se. Places and landmarks I visit are not exclusively for gays, and some events that I attend have no label. Nonetheless, as a traveler I am who I am and I must consider if I can fully enjoy what I choose to do; or if I will have to watch my back.

Being in backcountry solo hiking for long periods of time, I am just a hiker who happens to be gay. My sexuality should not matter a bit. Still, I know that depending on where I am, carrying a rainbow flag or wearing a T-shirt with a slogan calling for marriage equality is not a smart thing to do. Encountering a militia man, who made it a point to show me that he was armed, during a solo backpacking hike in a remote area in Utah reminded me of the risks any of us may face: gay or straight.

Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park, California
Hiking at Joshua Tree National Park, California
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Montreal: A Romantic Destination

Montreal! The Marseille of the New World! Georges Marciano, fashion designer and co-founder of Guess, is credited to having compared Montreal to his French hometown of Marseille. After selling his company’s shares, he left California to live in Montreal. Not only he found a home in the Old Montreal, but created one more reason to attract visitors to this charming city in the Canadian province of Quebec. Coincidentally, my last visit to Montreal had a lot to do with his visionary creativity and passion for the arts, style, and beauty. Visiting a  hotel that is more an art gallery than anything else, was another reason to be in Canada this time. Being there on a freezing weekend in December was personal, nostalgic, and romantic.

The Love sculpture by Robert Indiana at the entrance of LHotel, Montreal
The Love sculpture by Robert Indiana at the entrance of LHotel, Montreal

Welcome to Montreal and bienvenue to LHotel Montreal; the fabulous world that Marciano created in the historic Saint Jacques Street, the main street in Old Montreal. First opened in 1672 and the center of the financial district of Montreal in the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Saint Jacques Street is at the center of the city’s historic past and vibrant present. Marciano’s hotel is an art gallery where his personal art collection is on the walls in every floor in the public areas and in the guest rooms. Additionally, since my visit was just before the holidays, the Christmas tree in the lobby was stunning and displaying an elegant and exotic large figurines.

Placed outside in front of the hotel, Fernando Botero’s statue named Voluptuous Man on Horse and Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture are just the prelude to what awaits beyond the front door. Once inside, Marciano’s portrait by Andy Warhol in the lobby of LHotel and the gigantic white resin glowing male figure by Jaume Plensa that constantly changes color, offer a glimpse of the personal, intimate character of the hotel. They are just the first of many of the surprises that lay on each corner of every floor of this magnificent boutique art hotel. At check-in guests are invited to get a cocktail or a glass of wine at the lobby’s Botero Wine Bar and walk throughout the hotel and enjoy the art collection that Marciano shares with his guests.

Jaume Plensa's white resin glowing figure - LHotel Montreal
Jaume Plensa’s white resin glowing figure – LHotel Montreal, Quebec – Canada
Jaume Plensa's white resin glowing figure - LHotel Montreal
Jaume Plensa’s white resin glowing figure – LHotel Montreal

At walking distance from the hotel, the Musee d’Art Contemporain, Musee des Beaux Arts, and the Quebec Museum of Costume and Textiles at Marche Bonsecours, are only a few to name. However, it is LHotel’s art collection of limited-edition prints, paintings, and statues that make it cozy, intimate, and unique. Marciano’s collection includes works by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Joan Miro, Damien Hirst, James Rosenquist, and  Edward Ruscha among others.

Usually, a hotel is not the primary reason to visit a city. But, this time, the only reason to be in Montreal was to visit the LHotel. A tough sell to the immigration officer who seemed to have a hard time accepting that I was traveling by myself from Vermont just to visit a hotel in Montreal. I suppose a hotel didn’t seem enough an attraction for him. Well, it was for me! After explaining why I was coming to visit this particular hotel in Montreal and delving into the bitter-sweet nature of the visit, he apologized and wished me a great weekend.

It all started at the end of 2015 when I mentioned to my late husband Eric about the LHotel as he talked about unique hotels he had visited. He was passionate about hotels, which undoubtedly was the reason for his successful career in the hospitality business.  As I cooked dinner, he looked it up online and as he read about the hotel he said we had to spend a weekend there. Later, as we were having dinner he told me that he had made a reservation at LHotel for us to visit Montreal in the Spring.

However, the initial reservation for May of 2016 had to be cancelled as he had to visit his niece’s graduation. An attempt to go in July was scratched because of him being diagnosed with cancer, which ultimately took his life just before Thanksgiving. Just two days before passing away he reminded me that I had to go and visit the hotel. So, while I was spending some time in Vermont a few weeks after he passed away, I decided to drive up to Montreal for the weekend. It was bitter-sweet! The LHotel is everything he would have loved in a hotel.

Glass window at the Basilica of Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec
Glass window at the Basilica of Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec

Only a couple of blocks from the hotel, the historic Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal is intertwined with the history of Montreal and its pioneers. I find it to be more impressive in its interior design and architecture than that of the Notre Dame of Paris. Perhaps because blue is one of my favorite colors, and there is plenty of blue that glows inside the church. The history of the construction of the church is overwhelmingly interesting and the light effect produced by its glass windows is breathtaking. Housing the largest pipe organ in the Americas, the Christmas Eve Mass is known as the greatest event of its kind and tickets to attend such celebration must be purchased well in advance.

Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec
Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame of Montreal, Quebec – Canada

Designed by architect James O’Donnell Built in the Gothic style, the deep blue with golden stars give the vaults an incredible light effect. Multiple tones of blues, reds, purples, silver and gold adorn the sanctuary that displays stained glass windows that on a sunny day produce a spectacular show of light. Departing from the traditional biblical scenes displayed in stained glass windows in most Catholic churches, the scenes depicted in the windows of the Notre Dame of Montreal portray scenes from the historic past of religious and founding figures of the early days of Old Montreal.

Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame de Montreal, Quebec - Canada
Main altar at the Basilica Notre Dame de Montreal, Quebec – Canada

Having visited Montreal at different seasons of the year, I find that no matter what time of the year the city has a unique charm. Its people is possibly the most polite I have come to know. Its cafes and restaurants are to die for and its cuisine is mouthwatering. Montreal’s several Summer festivals, the Montreal World Film Festival, Montreal Pride, and the comedy Just for Laughs Festival which is held in July each year are great reasons to visit the city. And if cold weather does not scare you away, bundle up enjoy Montreal’s laidback, romantic winter nights at some of its cozy, romantic cafes and restaurants.