Solo Travels: Spokane

Nothing quite says adulthood like renting a car for the first time. It means you are free from age constraints and limitations (one can’t rent a car without huge fees until one is 25 years of age or older). It means you are traveling for one reason or another (work, school, play). It means you are as independent as you can be within your limited travel budget (I guess not all that independent–wah, wah).

I rented a car for the first time this past weekend in Spokane, Washington. I had never been to Washington before, so it was a weekend of firsts. My proclaimed primary reason for visiting Spokane was to visit Gonzaga University School of Law. (Apparently you pronounce the ‘zag’ as in zig-zag, not as in zahg as I’ve been saying it.) I say proclaimed because I had mostly decided against law school in general prior to my trip. Still, it was nice to visit and have a confirmation that that is not where I need to be. Other than the few hours I spent at Gonzaga, I spent my days exploring, hiking, taking photos, and absorbing–all the things one ought to do while traveling.

Rental Car

As a first time car renter, that detail played a big part in my trip. True, it wasn’t as exciting as one might hope looking forward to it, but it was a first and a milestone. That rental car was mine (for the next few days, at least).

I will say that the person at the rental counter quickly became an irritant. She began with a nice conversation, asking what brought me to Spokane and whatnot. And then–the switch! Over and over again she asked me to upgrade. I really wanted to throw up my hands and yell, “Hey! I have no money! I’m on a strict budget! STOP WITH THE PESTERING!” But I didn’t. Instead, I just said no time and again until she finally handed me the keys to my inexpensive compact car, perfect for one person.

When I made my way to the small Hyundai and sat inside I thought, “So this is what it’s like to fit in the driver’s seat.” You wouldn’t think 5 foot 4 inches would be that short, but in most cars I have to crane quite a bit to see blindspots. If I ever buy a car, a compact one might be in my future.

When I turned on the radio, a university jazz station filled the car. It was then I decided Spokane and I would probably be friends.

Where to Hike

With only a few days in Spokane, I only had time for two hikes. But of those two hikes, Iller Creek was the more amazing and noteworthy.

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I had planned to go straight from the airport to Iller Creek. However, Google Maps led me astray so I spent about an hour being lost before I finally found the trailhead. Having landed in the morning, this wasn’t a problem and I started hiking the five-mile loop at about 11:30 a.m.

When I got out of the car and while I gathered my gear, I noticed an unusual smell. What was that smell, you ask? Pine! To my desert-accustomed senses the smell of pine was surprising and delightful. The bold fragrance perfectly matched the vibrant green of the surrounding forest.

Iller Creek trail takes you to a stunning view of farmland and forest. At the top are “Rocks of Sharon,” a collection of giant boulders, perfect for climbing and catching a view. I climbed, I sat, I looked, I enjoyed. The peace and beauty made me excited to see what else was ahead on the trail.

After the rocks, the trail heads downward. It was a pleasant descent with wildflowers in abundance and a cozy afternoon sun. I reached a slightly muddy patch during my downhill, which when stepped in triggered the flight of about twenty blue moths (butterflies?) that fluttered around my ankles. It was like being in a forest fairy tale.

With a lot of uphill behind me and a rumble beginning to intensify in my stomach, I looked forward to reaching my rental car and heading to Spokane proper for some well-earned food (the uphill on Iller Creek while not the most intense I’ve ever done, does make you earn your downhill). I reached the parking lot and… it was the wrong parking lot.

Of the two trails I did in Washington, both were criss-crossed with side trails and alternate routes. I missed my turnoff to continue on the Iller Creek loop and ended up at Stevens Creek trailhead. The trailhead map said nothing about a road to Iller Creek so I figured my safest bet for not getting lost was to retrace my steps and find where I went wrong, tacking an extra two miles onto my overall hike, including one mile of the most intense uphill of the walk–back up the steep switchbacks I had just descended.

The extra two miles were fine–I’ve done more than seven miles in a day many times in my life of hiking. However, I ran out of water and food, and was not fully convinced I was on the right trail until I finally saw the familiar trailhead, the stress of which probably added to my need of adequate supplies.

Overall, this is a great trail. But, when hiking in Washington, pay attention to all trails.

Riverfront Park

You can’t go to Spokane without visiting Riverfront Park. The Spokane River runs right through this park and features multiple stunning bridges. There are also rides, a giant Radio Flyer wagon slide, statues, a carousel. It’s a great park. I explored the park after checking into my hotel and ordering what felt like decadent room service after my tough hike with depleted resources. A trail runs alongside the Spokane River, and my hotel had easy access to it making my walk to the park a breeze.

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As I made my way to the suspension bridge to look at the raging river, sirens blared and cops put “Police Do Not Cross” tape along the opening of that particular bridge. Apparently a woman had just leapt from it and they were searching for her body from that bridge and all bridges downriver from it. The way the Spokane River rages, it is tragic and disturbing to contemplate her experience. Suffice it to say, the Spokane Falls are likely an efficient way to accomplish what she sought.

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Suicide notwithstanding, Riverfront Park is a great addition to the city. It’s unique, it’s fun, it has character. It unites nature, history, and modernity in a beautiful design.

Where to Eat

As a note to Benny and Joon fans, that movie was filmed in Spokane. As such, I took it upon myself to honor said film and make grilled cheese sandwiches in my hotel room with an iron. It was effective, though it is important to clean the ironing board and iron very well when you are done so future hotel guests don’t get melted cheese and crumbs on their clothing.

The two restaurants that captured my attention the most were Sante and Madeleines Cafe &  Patisserie. Both are French in theme (perhaps it’s time for me to visit France again, there seems to be a trend in my habits and interests) and both are delicious.

Sante

Sante is a charcuterie with incredible food and a stylish ambiance. The staff knows their stuff in regards to what food is being served and is very concerned with making sure you enjoy your meal. Prepare to spend a lot here, but also know that the price is worth it–you’re tastebuds will agree.

The chef at Sante orders entire animals from local farmers, curing the meat himself on the premises, while doing his best to use the whole animal. That is meat consumption I can stand behind.

I ordered an item from every course, something I had never done before and now know requires minimal eating for the day leading up to such a meal. My tummy was happy but tight by the time I finished my meal.

Sante starts your meal by giving you an amuse bouche, a gastronomic bite to whet your appetite. The amuse bouche of the day I visited was a blini (a tiny pancake) topped with tomato whipped cream, cashew crumbles, and a touch of oregano. I was instructed to eat it all in one bite, so that’s what I did. That tiny bite was a nutty extravagance in my mouth. As it was just one bite, it left me wanting more and I suppose that was its intent.

My cheese plate was next. As a lover of cheese, this was heaven. However, the cheese plate is also what did me in in terms of eating too much. The cheese plate is probably designed for two to three people, but I was on my own. I ate as much as I could but had the rest boxed up.

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The cheese plate consisted of a double cream French brie, a valdeon blue, and a cana de Oveja sheeps milk cheese. The cheeses were complimented with strawberry jam, mustard, and curry chicken charcuterie with toasted baguette slices as a vessel for the luxury of cheese. It ended up being too much, but it was oh so delicious.

The brie was smooth and ripe. The blue tart and pungent. The cana nutty and buttery. The charcuterie chicken was my first venture into eating meat in years, and it was a good venture. Spicy and fragrant, it went well with the mustard and blue cheese.

My soup course featured a curry carrot and ginger soup. Creamy and smooth, it had an obvious bite of curry flavor accented with a strong taste of carrot. The layers of flavor opened with the carrot and closed with the spice lingering on your tongue as it dripped down your throat. Yum.

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A palette cleanser was brought in between soup and the main course. This was a strawberry and ginger ice sorbet. Light and tangy, it was very effective at cleansing the spicy curry from my palette in preparation for the main course.

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My main course was a fish course consisting of tomato risotto and arctic charr. This dish was beautiful to behold and scrumptious to ingest. The collard greens were light and fresh. The fish was flavorful and featured a subtle kick. The foamy basil beurre fondue was to die for, and the crunchy parsnips added a final and elegant touch to the dish. My only complaint was that the risotto was a bit salty for my taste. But, after three cheeses, charcuterie, and a soup, maybe my sodium intake had simply met its limit.

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For dessert (yes, I even ordered a dessert), I had basil ice cream with a basil sauce over a bed of chocolate “sand.” I had reservations about ordering dessert because I was so full, I thought I might bust. But, I ordered it because I was determined to have every course and because basil ice cream. I did not regret my choice. In fact, contrary to what I would have guessed, the ice cream helped to settle my very full stomach. Maybe it was the change from savory to sweet, maybe it was the cool temperature, or maybe it was the light freshness of the basil. Whatever it was, my stomach felt more at ease after my scoop of basil ice cream. The chocolate sand was bitter and crunchy, giving the ice cream a perfect contrast of textures. The sauce added just enough extra basil flavor to give the ice cream a solid basil taste. It was decadent and wonderful.

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Overall, Sante is unique, fun, and delicious. The use of local ingredients and the entire animal is applaudable, while the ambiance is the perfect blend of modern flair and French haute-cuisine.

Madeleines Cafe & Patisserie

I won’t go into as much detail for this cafe as I did for Sante. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy French pastries and a casual dining experience, this is the place for you. Madeleines offers delicious breakfast and unusual details. For example, my blueberry pancakes were topped with maple butter. The pastries are excellent and the various prepared foods (such as quiche, salads, and pastas) looked wonderful.

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Where to Watch Movies

Coming from Salt Lake City, I am spoiled with the Salt Lake Film Society and the many independent films they offer. Nonetheless, Spokane’s Magic Lantern Theatre is available for viewing independent film. It is charmingly shabby and has only two screens. I saw Hello, My Name is Doris for the second time at this theatre. Wherever there is independent film, find it and imbibe.

Where to Buy Books

Apparently when I am on vacation I buy books. I found two great bookstores: Giant Nerd Books and Auntie’s Bookstore.

If Giant Nerd Books hadn’t been real, it would possibly have been cliche. The store was small with stacks of used books and the proprietor played obscure punk rock. The books smelled delightful and with a large selection, it was easy to pick out a few.

Auntie’s Bookstore features a mix of used and new books, and regularly has events such as book signings and poetry readings. It has a rich children’s section and a small second floor. Auntie’s is a bookstore that makes me giddy upon entering.

All in all, Spokane is a great city. It is small and features fabulous details that give it character and life. The neighborhoods feature historical and beautiful architecture and are lined with trees. With nature nearby it is a perfect destination for outdoorsy types and will surprise you with its hidden treasures.