The Oregon Coast: Raw wind-blown beauty — and great chowder — warmed the heart of my Italian photographer

This wide stretch of unspoiled sandy beach south of Yachats can be seen all over the Oregon Coast. Photo by Marina Pascucci

This wide stretch of unspoiled sandy beach south of Yachats can be seen all over the Oregon Coast. Photo by Marina Pascucci

YACHATS, Ore. — I found it a little daunting last year when my Italian girlfriend said she wanted to see where I grew up. What kind of a ghoul tour could I give her in Eugene, Oregon? I could show her the bar parking lot where I passed out the night of my 21st birthday. Maybe she’d enjoy the street in front of my high school girlfriend’s house where I lost my virginity (the stick shift in the ‘67 Mustang could NOT have been designed for a more inconvenient spot). Maybe she’d like to see my frat house where they filmed “Animal House” while I was living there. Then again, she didn’t really understand the movie. Italians, God love ‘em, don’t find food fights remotely funny.

The most important thing on her must-see list, oddly, was Papa’s Pizza. It’s the pizza parlor where I worked the summer after high school graduation. She had a weird curiosity about her American boyfriend making pizzas. It didn’t matter that every single ingredient at Papa’s, from the tomatoes to the cheese to the salami, came from a box or can. Those pizzas had so few natural ingredients they were nearly synthetic. It was no concern that a Papa’s pizza could grease an International Harvester. She wanted to try it.

She also wanted to see my house, my school, my sisters. What she didn’t know much about was one of the best parts of my childhood, the part she wound up liking most during our recent two-week trip around the Pacific Northwest.

The Oregon Coast is a way to get away from it all, namely people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Oregon Coast is a way to get away from it all, namely people. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Oregon Coast.

Notice it is not called the Oregon beach. The word “beach” conjures up images of bikinis and sunscreen, Frisbees and volleyball, swimming and palm trees. The Oregon Coast is cold. The ocean is freezing. It’s between 45-63 degrees (7-17 celcius), depending on the year. Don’t even think about swimming. I went in once when I was 10 years old and I swear I’ve been sterile ever since. Before we arrived, just in case we took a quick dip, I looked up the Italian word for “shrinkage.”

The weather itself makes it feel like it’s on the Bering Strait rather than the Pacific. It gets 60 inches (150 cm) of rain a year. Wind sweeps in like icy thunderbolts, reaching 60 mph in winter, and pierces your ubiquitous hoody regardless of season. It was August and I wore jeans and a long-sleeve shirt every day. Marina, being Italian, dressed as if she was mushing a dogsled over one of the poles.

Me on Agate Beach, a frequent family destination when I was a kid and still beautiful in its simplicity. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on Agate Beach, a frequent family destination when I was a kid and still beautiful in its simplicity. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yet we take pride in that as much as its raw beauty. It’s why we capitalize “Coast.” The Oregon Coast is so unique. No place has beaches as broad with such fine golden sand as Oregon. From Highway 101, which goes the length of the Coast, it looks like one long continuous sand dune. Yet we could practically pack the number of beachcombers we saw in our rental car. If the Coast was 20 degrees warmer the crowds would make Manhattan Beach look like a river bank in rural Kansas.

We Oregonians? We didn’t know any better. My family would take the hour drive from Eugene and have BBQs on the sand. Trying to find a sheltered spot where our fire didn’t get blown out after 30 seconds would’ve challenged Navy SEALs. My father and I played golf with one of his local friends, and I distinctly recall the wind sending one of my badly hooked drives halfway to the Marshall Islands. The next morning after a storm we’d walk the beach and see little sea creatures playing in tide pools. We’d find various sizes of glass balls that broke away from nets on Japanese fishing boats and floated to shore. I had a very learned uncle who flew out from Bethesda, Maryland, just to collect the perfectly black rocks he said could only be found on the Oregon Coast.

Since 1967 all of the Oregon Coast has been public land. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Since 1967 all of the Oregon Coast has been public land. Photo by Marina Pascucci

What also makes the Oregon Coast special is every grain of sand from the California to Washington borders is public land. In 1966, a motel owner in Cannon Beach, about 80 miles west of Portland, tried banning the beach behind his motel from all but his guests. Lawmakers quickly introduced the Beach Bill and since its signing on July 6, 1967, all of the Oregon Coast is public land.

The Oregon Coast doesn’t have any palm trees but it doesn’t have any Club Meds, either.

To reach the Coast we drove diagonally from Portland through McMinnville, near the heart of Pinot Noir country. If you didn’t know, Oregon has the best Pinot Noir in the world. Just ask Oregonians. Or look at the prices. You don’t get any home state discounts in my Oregon, buddy. We stopped at R. Stuart & Co., a downtown McMinnville wine bar where I paid $15 for a tasting of three fantastic single-vintage Pinots and one blend. Thirsty for more and possibly a present for us as we sat by the ocean later that day, I asked the cost for a bottle.

Fifty dollars for the single vintages; $60 for the blend. I looked outside to see if I was still in Oslo.

We continued down the road until we met the Coast at Lincoln City, not more than a small logging town when I grew up in the ‘60s but now rivaling Cannon Beach as one of the top tourist destinations on the Coast. We headed south and just short of Waldport I pulled into the Flying Dutchman Winery. It was in the mid-60s and windy.

Marina, shivering, wouldn’t get out of the car.

The view from the Flying Dutchman's patio in Waldport.

The view from the Flying Dutchman's patio in Waldport.

The cheerful man behind the bar poured me a lovely 2016 Pinot as well as a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and three others while we swapped notes on Italian versus Oregon wines. The wines were almost as good as the setting: right above the water with a big backyard featuring picnic tables all with fantastic views of the ocean. If you can handle the cold, it’s the perfect place to improve your wine palate.

I mentioned the view to Marina and suggested having a glass outside. She mumbled something in Romanaccio, the part of the Roman dialect exclusively reserved for profanity, that I fortunately didn’t understand.

However, she did join me for a bottle of local craft beer and some Oregon cheddar cheese behind our motel where a park bench pointed out to the ocean. While chilly, the Oregon Coast was one of the few places in the Pacific Northwest last month where raging forest fires hadn’t reduced the air to Beijing in July. We could smell the salt water as it pounded against the rocks. The gray overcast sky mirrored the ocean, a mix of roiling sea the color of steel and white sea foam.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Marina and I behind the Fireside Motel in Yachats.

Notice we stayed at a motel, with an “m,” not a hotel. For you Europeans, an American motel is like a hotel but usually just one or two stories and featured in most slasher movies. Not all have “FREE PORN” on their sign with a light missing. The Fireside Motel is a reputable, comfortable and very clean motel and an absolute steal at $120 a night.

In the summer the Oregon Coast is real expensive. As I searched for hotels I wondered if it would soon price itself out of the tourist market. I used Priceline, the U.S. bidding website where you put in a price, hotel level and date and if the computer finds a match, it automatically books you a room and charges your credit card. While you can’t review the hotel before the purchase, it offers major discounts at hotels desperately trying to fill empty rooms in the last week or so. I bid for four days and topped out at 175 euros. That’s nearly $200. Still no match.

What is this, the Oregon Coast or Saint-Tropez?

I punted. I took the recommendation from my sister who uses the Fireside for quick weekend getaways from Eugene with her husband.

It is pronounced YAH-hots, not “Yacchtssh” as Marina continually butchered. It comes from the Siletz Indian word for “Dark water at the foot of the mountain.” This little town of about 700 people has gone from an internment camp the U.S. Army used for local Indian tribes in the 19th century to No. 7 on travel guide guru Arthur Frommer’s top 10 list of favorite destinations in the … world. In 2007 Budget Travel listed it as one of the 10 Coolest Small Towns of the USA. That same year, the now-defunct VirtualTourist website called it one of the top 10 U.S. up-and-coming vacation destinations.

This all explains the lodging prices.

Yachats Underground

Yachats Underground

This also explains how Marina and I sat in Yachats Underground, the town’s local dive bar, talking to a 38-year-old mustachioed new father showing off his baby’s picture while bitching about local real estate. The Underground is Yachats’ nerve center. Hardened middle-aged women with bad hair and no makeup drink tall beers at the long, curved wood bar. A sign reading “DEEP SEA DRINKING” hung on the wall.

“You can’t find a place anymore in Yachats that isn’t taken by rich folks buying a second home,” the man said. “When you do find one, it’s $1,200 a month for a one-bedroom.”

Twelve hundred a month? That’s more than I pay for a one-bedroom in the middle of Rome.

“Nine years ago, $1,200 would rent you a house,” he said. “It’s $2,300 now.”

Yet falling on the cliche, you get what you pay for, after two days in Yachats I could see the appeal. Burned out? Divorced? Dying? Walk along the manicured trail that parallels the ocean. Holding hands, Marina and I meandered through tall grass for a couple hundred meters, climbed around driftwood and jumped over small tide pools. We found our way to a giant expanse of beach, void of anyone but a stray man, obviously burned out, divorced or dying, strolling the sand.

This is near where Ken Kesey wrote "Sometimes a Great Notion." Photo by Marina Pascucci

This is near where Ken Kesey wrote "Sometimes a Great Notion." Photo by Marina Pascucci

The late great Ken Kesey, a fellow University of Oregon grad who grew up in Eugene’s neighboring town, Springfield, based his “Sometimes a Great Notion” novel in 1964 on a struggling logging family on the Oregon Coast. The author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” did a lot of writing in Yachats. As a writer, I always thought the Coast would be the perfect place to write.

Kesey said it’s too nice.

He once told an interviewer, “I can’t sit out there, look at the ocean and get any work done. It hammers the hell out of me.”

The Yaquina Head Light is the tallest of Oregon's lighthouses at 93 feet

The Yaquina Head Light is the tallest of Oregon's lighthouses at 93 feet

The Oregon Coast is a wilderness paradise. Just across Highway 101 from the ocean is the Siuslaw National Forest where 630,000 acres of trees provide canopy for a spiderweb of hiking trails. Add 30 degrees, humidity and deadly snakes and it would be the Amazon. I recall in years past hiking in the shade for an hour then coming across a crystal-blue lake I never knew existed.

Marina and I eschewed the hiking trails for Highway 101 and drove up the road 30 miles to Yaquinta Head Light. Lighthouses litter the Coast like sentries. The state has 11 and the 93-foot Yaquina is the tallest of them all. It can be seen from 20 miles out at sea. It’s just too bad it wasn’t built until 1871. Before its construction, 69 ships turned into kindling and underwater tombs from not knowing where the hell they were. Blimps and the U.S. Navy protected the lighthouse during World Wars I and II.

Yaquina Head Light sits at the end of promonotory that sticks out into the sea like a drunken sailor’s middle finger. The Oregon Coast has a lovely giant aquarium in nearby Newport. The beach at Yaquina is better. Marina and I descended a tall staircase to the beach where we walked along the sand and examined tide pools with starfish. The sun had appeared. Marina’s camera clicked like a horde of crickets.

Then something appeared in the water.

A black head. A little black head with whiskers. Then another. Sea lions, the kind you pay $29.50 to see in an aquarium, were surfacing just about 50 feet away from us. They stared at us. We stared at them. Just on impulse, I waved. I thought one of them nodded. Anyway, they dove and disappeared.

Then Marina pointed behind them. Rising out of the water was a long black, shiny object about 20 feet long. It was a whale, one of the 36-ton gray whales that cruise by here daily to feed. This is what I wanted Marina to see. This is what she can’t see in Italy.

This is the real Oregon. My Oregon.

Mo's Alaskan cod sandwich and clam chowder.

Mo’s Alaskan cod sandwich and clam chowder.

Besides the Oregon Coast’s beauty, I also spent the last year regaling Marina about its food. She fell in love with the clam chowder last year in Newport, Rhode Island. The clam chowder in the other Newport is better, I told her. Mo’s in Newport is as legendary as Oregon’s lighthouses. Paul Newman and Henry Fonda often ate here while filming “Sometimes a Great Notion” in 1970. Robert F. Kennedy campaigned at Mo’s in 1968, no doubt swearing off New England chawdah fahevah. In 2011 Coastal Living listed it among America’s Favorite Seafood Dives.

It started in 1946 by one Mohava Niemi, a local chain-smoking broadcaster who turned it into a hippy hangout in the ‘60s and ‘70s. She later bought an oyster farm and has expanded to six stores. Mo’s makes a half million pounds of chowder a year.

We ate across from the street from the original in a small annex consisting of about a dozen tables overlooking two fishing boats. Nautical flags hang on the wall as does a black and white photo of a 500-pound halibut. Waitstaff run around in T-shirts reading “Eat Like a Pirate. Drink Like a Fish.”

We ordered the Alaskan cod burger and chowder. The burger was excellent. The cod was grilled, not fried. But the chowder was orgasmic, packed with fat clams and soft potatoes and thick soup, all topped with a little pat of butter.

After I spewed glorious adjectives on Facebook, fellow Oregonians who claim Mo’s is overrated roasted me with rebuttals usually reserved for murder trials. They listed a half dozen other tiny dives that serve better chowder, meaning we’ll just have to come back again.

On our way to Eugene, Highway 101 South revealed phenomenal vistas of long, empty beaches without a person or — gasp! — lounge chair in sight. The state highway department was smart enough to include lookouts to pull in so Marina could snap away.

The Siuslaw River in Florence. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Siuslaw River in Florence. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We stopped in Florence, just an hour west of Eugene and nearly surrounded by water. As we sipped our coffee outside a little gift shop, staring at the pleasure boats bobbing up and down on the peaceful Siuslaw River Marina had a familiar smile on her face. It’s a smile I see when we’re in special places in Italy, like staring at the Roman Forum at night or sitting alongside a canal in Venice or laying on a beach in Sicily.

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been,” she said.

An endorsement on your home state’s beauty from an Italian, a better compliment can not be heard.

Vancouver: From skid row to Sheraton, a travel tale from hell turns into paradise in smoky Pacific Northwest

The boardwalk along Coal Harbour with Vancouver’s skyline in the background. Photo by Marina Pascucci

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — I knew we were in trouble when our Indian Sikh cab driver’s mood suddenly changed. Sikhs don’t believe in worldly things. Material possessions are accepted, not sought. So when a Sikh from India warns you about a poor neighborhood, you listen.

Particularly if he’s talking about your hotel.

“Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!,” he said as he double-checked its address and turned a corner. “Vellie bawd ahreah. Why you stay theyah?”

Bad area? In Vancouver? Vancouver is one of the world’s ideal cities. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked it tops among the “most well-living cities” in the world five straight years. I was born, raised, educated and employed in the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver is the place we went to escape reality.

It’s like Sydney with slap shots.

In 2016 Vancouver's homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

In 2016 Vancouver’s homeless jumped 16-17 percent and now most of the 2,181 homeless are on Hastings Street. Vancouver Province photo

But as we drove down Hastings Street, we saw the source of his fears. Homeless, dozens then hundreds, lined both sides of the street. They stood, sat and laid three deep among scattered and battered pup tents, sleeping bags and blankets. It looked like a refugee camp from a border war.

I looked at Marina, my Italian girlfriend who dreamed of seeing Vancouver, the focus of our two-week vacation in the Pacific Northwest. Despite the jetlag, her eyes were open as if she just saw an asteroid destroy a small planet.

“Fa SCHIFO!” she said. That’s one of my favorite Italian phrases. Unfortunately, “It SUCKS!” doesn’t sound good coming from your girlfriend after you introduce her to her dream vacation spot.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

The broken-down piano in the Patricia lobby.

It got worse. We checked into the hotel, the Patricia, and I wondered if it inspired “Psycho.” We walked in past a broken-down piano in the lobby. Marina is deathly afraid of spiders so I didn’t look for cobwebs. The elevator didn’t work. I tried turning on a reading lamp in our tiny fourth-floor room and the knob fell off in my hand. The bathroom’s folding door had no handle. It had no wifi.

As we dropped our bags, Marina immediately took a chair and wedged it under the door handle, as if we were escaping the cast of “Night of the Living Dead.”

Marina's reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

Marina’s reaction to the neighborhood outside our hotel.

“No esco! No esco!” (I don’t go out! I don’t go out!),” she said.

I went to the lobby and asked the manager, a young, pleasant but beaten-down man who looked as if he’s asked every hour about the neighborhood.

“It’s not as dangerous as it seems,” was his endorsement.

Funny, when I booked the room way back in September, its description said the Patricia was next to Chinatown, which I know and enjoy, and Gastown, Vancouver’s hopping nightlife district. The Patricia is in Vancouver’s first neighborhood and built in 1913. Pictures of the rooms looked great. At $80 Canadian ($70 U.S.), it was about the only hotel I found in the city under $150.

Now I know why.

Marina was speechless. I could’ve told her I didn’t have enough time to research the area. After all, I only had 11 months. Instead, I drank.

Frustrated, angry and limping from kicking myself all the way up and down the four flights of stairs we had to climb, I went to the roomy bar and ordered a Patricia Lager. No, the hotel has no working elevator but it does have a craft beer.

Jeff, a smiling, pony-tailed bartender, poured me the beer and said the neighborhood really isn’t dangerous. He walks home from work. The homeless are too stoned, drunk or sleepy to do any damage. But the blight on an otherwise spectacularly beautiful city, with one of the top skyline views in the world, is like vomit on a tuxedo.

I told him, “I’ve been in worse rooms in my life. A hotel in rural Egypt had the shower drain double as the toilet drain. But in 102 countries, I’ve never stayed in a worse neighborhood.”

I told him I remember Hastings Street from the 2010 Winter Olympics. But it hosted a couple blocks of homeless, like any city. It was nothing like this, a post-apocalyptic urban meltdown. I counted five straight blocks with people sleeping on the street. That’s not counting the ones in shelters.

“In the 2010 Olympics they put all the homeless shelters on this street,” Jeff said. “It’s gotten worse ever since. They come from all over Canada because of the moderate weather.”

Yes, if you’re out of work, out of luck and out of money, Vancouver is the place to find a park bench. It’s the warmest Canadian city in winter and coolest in summer. It has never recorded a temperature higher than 95 and never below zero.

As he talked, an elderly homeless man teetered up to the bar with a $10 bill. Jeff went to the back and brought back a big plastic bag of 12 cans of Carling Black Label, a vile swill from British Columbia I couldn’t keep down even in my poorest college days.

“But it has 8.5 percent alcohol,” Jeff said.

A tall, older man heard us and approached. A sympathizer to the homeless, he said before the 1986 World Expo, all the hotels with single-pensioner rooms, such as the Patricia, booted all its tenants onto the street. Many haven’t left.

“I know how to fix it,” the man said before walking away. “Get a gun!”

Apparently, the man comes to the Patricia only for the music. On this night, it was three middle-aged guitarists playing as a half dozen elderly, lumpy Vancouverites rocked awkwardly in the dim light.

Meanwhile, Marina had returned from smoking a cigarette outside. Normally, she smokes only after meals. We lost our appetite long ago.

“John, I saw a couple smoking crack outside,” she said.

I wanted to ask a rude question but fortunately I didn’t know Italian for “Did they share?” Also, Marina didn’t look in the mood for humor. Ever since we entered the hotel, curiously, a raven appeared on her shoulder.

Like Portland in my native Oregon, Vancouver’s homeless situation is reaching a crisis level. According to a CBC report in March, Vancouver has 2,181 homeless. The number went up 2 percent in 2017 after a 16-17 percent jump in 2016. Forty percent were indigenous people, 22 percent were from outside Vancouver and 25 percent surveyed said they were addicted to opioids. Mayor Gregor Robertson’s No. 1 campaign promise in 2015 was to solve the problem.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

Marina as we checked out of the Patricia for the Sheraton Wall Centre.

However, fear not, bella. I’ve had worse travel stories from hell.

I’m a big fan of Priceline, the United States website where you bid for hotel rooms. You find the city and check off your desired neighborhoods, star rating and price. If Priceline finds a match, it automatically charges your credit card. It’s risky. You must take the hotel it gives you. However, hotels use it to fill empty rooms and the closer you get to your arrival date, the cheaper they become and are way below listed rates on their websites.

I didn’t think Priceline worked in Canada. I was wrong.

I sat, alone, in the lobby which did have wifi and inserted a four-star hotel for $170. Bingo! Priceline gave us the Sheraton Wall Centre for $170. I looked at its website. Its normal price …

… $570.

It’s on the West End near Stanley Park with views of Vancouver’s glorious skyline, an indoor pool, Jacuzzi and huge rooms with giant flat-screen TVs.

And bathroom doors.

We checked in the next morning and Marina hugged me before we reached the elevator. Yes, she said, she will sleep with me again.

Going from Vancouver’s East End, particularly Hastings Street, to the West End is like going from Tijuana to San Diego. They’re that close. In one short cab ride, we found ourselves in an August wonderland filled with water all around, glorious parks, fantastic seafood, liberal politics and safe streets.

Part of Vancouver's glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Part of Vancouver’s glittering skyline. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Canada and the Pacific Northwest, as I’ve written before, the Pacific Northwest is one of the few places on Earth comfortable to travel in August. The others are Scandinavia, Mongolia and, of course, Alaska. In our three days in Vancouver, it never got over 80 degrees. It never rained.

No wonder 10.3 million tourists visited in 2017, raising $4.8 billion for a city that employs 70,000 people in the tourist industry. And, no wonder, housing costs are skyrocketing to where the average two-level home costs about $1 million, nearly three times the national average.

Utopia ain’t cheap folks and if you can handle rain — it rains at least every other day from October to March — this city of 630,000 is as close to urban perfection as you’ll find.

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Vancouver from Stanley Park. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The place I wanted to take Marina was Vancouver’s crown jewel: Stanley Park. It’s the largest urban park in Canada and my favorite spot in the city. It’s 1,000 acres encompassing a half million trees, some as high as 250 feet and 100 years old. Water surrounds nearly the entire park. A bike/jogging path circumvents the quasi island with a dirt-bike track zigging through the trees. It has a world-famous aquarium, snack stands and a tony cafe. In 2014 TripAdvisor named it the top park in the world.

We rented hybrid street bikes from one of the long line of rental shops along nearby Denman Street and cycled a short way across West Georgia Street from downtown into the park. As we started pedaling, I stopped Marina and told her to turn to her right. There she saw the view that has captivated me my entire life and millions for generations. It’s the view of Vancouver’s glittery skyline. The city has no signature world-renowned building but the collection of downtown skyscrapers and glistening new apartment high rises in the background and a fleet of pleasure boats bobbing on Coal Harbour is a painting few artists can capture. On a clear e day it’s breathtaking. It ranks up there with Rio de Janeiro from Christ the Redeemer statue, New York from an airplane and San Francisco from across Golden Gate Bridge as my favorite skylines in the world.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Marina and I before pedaling around Stanley Park.

Cycling around Stanley Park is more tour than exercise. We couldn’t go too far without stopping at a site or a view. We stopped at a totem park with totem poles honoring the indigenous people who populated the island
before it was turned into a park in 1886. The paint still looked as if it was applied yesterday. We cruised up the east side, not to say slowly but joggers were passing us. We stopped to gaze at a tiny lighthouse and the long, majestic Lions Gate Bridge. We passed a long sandy beach with clean, clear water that looked inviting except for the inevitable sterility-inducing temperature. After Marina headed back to a cafe for lunch, I launched an assault on a twisty, road up a hill where the summit offered good views of downtown.
One of Stanley Park's many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

One of Stanley Park’s many totem poles. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Yes, even now the views could be better. The worst forest fires in British Columbia history, totalling more than 5,000 square miles, has left Vancouver — and much of the Northwest — in a permanent brown haze. For three years I bragged to Marina about my spotless corner of the planet. Then we spent two weeks driving around what looked like L.A. in the ‘60s. Vancouver isn’t as bad as rural Washington, where people have been told in some areas to stay indoors, but the smoke did drop a slight film on one of the world’s best views.

We headed indoors the next day. We took a cute, brightly painted water taxi across False Creek to Granville Island, one of the great public markets in North America. Coming from Rome, littered with public markets sporting Italy’s best natural products, Granville Island was a must stop despite its tourist trappings. Inside a long, red A-framed building are 150 vendors selling everything from $300 hand-crafted knives to apples, from 150 varieties of tea at Granville Island Tea Company to rotisserie chicken and sausages at L’Epicerie Rotisserie and Gourmet Shop. After spending $2.90 for an almond cookie filled with chocolate cream and covered in chocolate, I walked back to the vendor and said, “This is the greatest dessert ever produced by human hands.” She reacted as if she’d heard it before.

Grandville Island's Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

Grandville Island’s Public Market has 150 individual businesses. Photos by Marina Pascucci

I bought a small hand-painted carving of an orca made by a local member of the Carrier Nation. To British Columbia’s indigenous people, the orca, or killer whale, is symbolic of communication, intuition and harmony, perfect for my retired life in Rome. The sprawling crafts store is one of more than 100 other businesses outside the market that help Granville Island annually generate $215 million worth of business for the city.

No wonder as we bounced around False Creek, passing 100-foot yachts and towering apartment houses, the Aquabus pilot told us the upper-floor apartments were going for $2 million-$4 million. Hell, if I retired to Vancouver, I might be on Hastings Street, too.

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Upper-floor apartments in Vancouver high rises go for $2 million-$4 million. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Ironically, we wound up on Hastings Street on our last night. No, I hadn’t run out of money. We had to cross Hastings to get from the bus stop to Gastown. It wasn’t particularly dangerous. We passed some middle-aged men arguing in a slurring speech I couldn’t comprehend. Some older people were too passed out to even open their eyes. I smelled urine.
Vancouver's Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Vancouver’s Aquabus. Photo by Marina Pascucci

But in two blocks we found Gastown. It’s a sprawling string of rollicking bars and restaurants along Water Street, anchored by the famed Steam Clock that toots an obnoxious steam whistle every 15 minutes. On a lovely comfortable night in the high ‘60s, every outdoor seat in every bar was filled. We did find a corner table at a funky split-level bar called Six Acres, billed as Gastown’s “coziest tavern” and maybe the only pub in the world with candlelit corners. At our outdoor table a waitress with a bowling pin tattooed on her thigh served me a Doaus Kolsch, one of BC’s growing number of craft beers, and stared at the ass of Gassy Jack. His statue honors John “Gassy Jack” Deighton who arrived in Vancouver in 1867 and built the first pub in this neighborhood. Vancouver has been toasting ever since. His statue, appropriately, is atop a whiskey barrel.
Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver's first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Gassy Jack Statue honoring the man who opened Vancouver’s first bar in 1867. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Then a man staggered up to us and tried bumming gas fare. Maybe he was one of the lucky ones. Maybe he was one who’s close to getting off Hastings Street.

Newport, Rhode Island: The sailor’s mecca isn’t just for the rich and famous but it certainly looks the part

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms' deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The view of Newport Harbor from the Blooms’ deck on Goat Island. Photo by Marina Pascucci

NEWPORT, R.I. — I am prone, on my back at the bow of an 80-foot sailboat with my foot propped atop the railing. If I moved 12 inches to my left, the sun would set between my feet. But I’m too relaxed to budge. The glass of champagne in my hand convinces me that there’s no better place in the world right now than sailing in the Sailing Capital of the World.

My girlfriend, the lovely and uber-talented photographer Marina Pascucci, is sitting behind me. The descending sun and lights of one of the world’s prettiest harbors reflect off her glasses like fireworks. Her beaming smile reminds me of the same one she flashed in Positano and Paris.

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

A sailboat during the sunset cruise. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Welcome to Newport, R.I. It’s a combination of Camelot and Monaco, America’s answer to every desperate immigrant’s question since they first started storming our shores: What is the American Dream?

Marina and I finished our nine-day New England trip with a visit to some friends who are living that dream. Gretchen and Peter Bloom have lived in Newport off and on since 1988. I met them in Rome where they lived for 17 years and escaped every sweltering summer to Newport. They haven’t changed their routine since moving from Rome to Washington two years ago.

She’s retired from the World Food Program and Peter, a native of Providence, R.I., 40 miles up the road, is retired from USAID. Between the two, they’ve been to 123 countries, including 40 in Africa. They lived in Sri Lanka. Yet there is no place in the world — not Rome, not London, not the beaches of Thailand — they’d rather be than Newport.

“I wanted a piece of Rhode Island,” Peter tells me. “I am a Rhode Islander. You have no idea how much of a Rhode Islander.”

He’s telling me this while we sit in their fifth-floor condo on a long deck overlooking historic, majestic and magnetic Newport Harbor. After three days, I learned how much of a Rhode Islander he is. It goes beyond the fact that this Harvard grad still pronounces my home state “Or-ee-GONE.” He’s as proud of Newport as I am of Oregon. He puts down his glass of wine and sweeps his hand across the bay. Pleasure craft from small motorboats to towering sailboats dot the harbor, some drifting in from a cruise around the Rhode Island Sound.

Newport is to sailing what Aspen is to skiing. That’s why Marina and I found ourselves on a sunset booze cruise of an 80-foot windjammer. The America’s Cup, the international sailing championship founded in 1851, was held here from 1930-1983. John F. Kennedy’s old boat is here. Ted Turner’s famed champion, American Eagle, is docked here. So is Intrepid, which won the America’s Cup twice. The International Sailing Hall of Fame is negotiating to move here from Annapolis, Md.

Photo by Marina Pascucci

Photo by Marina Pascucci

It’s not just sailboats. Jimmy Buffett has here a 245-foot yacht, the fourth-largest private boat in the world. Race car driver Roger Penske has a 200-footer. The harbor in Monaco may have more expensive yachts. But Monaco doesn’t have Newport’s ambiance, its casual sense of bliss. In Monaco, you go to be seen. In Newport, you go to do.

The Blooms go sailing but are smart enough not to own a sailboat. I’ve met too many people who say, “The second best day of my life was when I bought my boat; the best day of my life was when I sold it.” While boats may be money pits, they are the most leisurely way to travel. I’ve done week-long sailing trips in French Polynesia, the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands. Marina has sailed around Greece. There is no more restful sleep in the world than on the deck of a sailboat rocking on the South Pacific under a Polynesian sky. Peter was working in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1968 when he learned to sail 15-foot dinghies.

“I’m living in the sailing mecca of the world and I learned to sail in Lagos, Nigeria,” he says.

The Blooms actually live on Goat Island, a narrow islet less than a mile long and connected to Newport’s dock-lined southern shore by a short causeway. Goat Island is where they buried pirates they hanged in the 17th and 18th centuries, back when Newport rivaled New York as the most important port in the colonies. It later housed the Naval Torpedo Station until 1951. Today the Blooms look down along Goat Island’s southern shore lined with 19 modest harbor homes starting at about $1.3 million.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Sunset from the gazebo.

Romantic gazebos are spaced along the shoreline. Four big tables with chairs are pointed west for us to sit around and eat smoked gouda and drink good wine while a blood red sunset paints itself along the horizon. As the sun touches down, cannons go off from Newport’s three yacht clubs.

It’s the perfect spot for a wedding reception. In Newport, we were lucky to find a free gazebo. Newport is the nation’s second most popular wedding spot behind Las Vegas. But, as one local said, “Most of the weddings in Las Vegas are at 6 a.m. so I like to think Newport is No. 1.”

Every night we hear wild wedding receptions pulsating from a nearby building, forcing The Temptations’ “My Girl” to swirl in my head on a continual loop the next day.

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

On the harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Walking around Newport, Marina and I feel like we’re exploring a nautical gingerbread land. The boating theme is everywhere on the long, straight boulevards lined with curiosity shops, tony cafes, sweet stands and souvenir stores. Down Thames Street we see U.S. flags with anchors in place of the stars. Flipflops sport fish on the soles. Jewelry are in the shape of nautical flags. A studio shows Onne Van Der Wal’s brilliant photos of giant sails and bows bopping up and down on the water, basked in a sunset. Then we pass the greatest name for a tackle store in the history of fishing.

Bite Me Bait Shop.

Try explaining that to an Italian woman still learning English. I admit, I had fun trying.

Newport’s action, however, is on the harbor. It’s like its own separate city. The southern shore of Newport is crawling with the breadth of American boating: kayaks, dinghies, motorboats, 15-foot skiffs, 22-foot J-class, historical windjammers. We walk in and out through the maze of shops and seafood restaurants and open-air bars where people eat thick clam chowder, drink big mugs of ice-cold beer and listen to The Doors’ “Light My Fire” over the loudspeaker. We can’t walk five minutes without running into little booths advertising harbor cruises scheduled from morning to sunset.

The Blooms pick us up and give us, not the nickel tour, but the million-dollar tour, which is the only way you can describe Newport. We drive by Washington Square, a wide swath of an area where they use a more civilized means of punishing thieves: a courthouse. People in red uniforms and black, three-point hats and wigs walk around in preparation for a reenactment of the Stamp Act protest from 1765. That’s when locals rioted over the British laying a tax on printed paper, one of the first direct taxes the British forced onto the colonies. We pass St. Mary’s Church where JFK married Jackie Bouvier, who grew up on nearby Hammersmith Farm, one of Newport’s mansions that became Kennedy’s summer White House. Later we see a photo of the Kennedys cutting their wedding cake.

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

International Tennis Hall of Fame. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We pass the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a miniature Wimbledon complete with the green wood architecture and grass courts. Two weekend hacks look astonishingly out of place wearing all whites while patty-caking shots across the net in front of an empty grandstand.

As we go by the massive gray-and-white Renaissance-Norman mansion used to house the New York Yacht Club, I ask Peter how much it costs to be a member.

“I’ll never get inside,” he says.

 The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

The Breakers has 70 rooms and was built on 14 acres.

We continue along stately Bellevue Avenue and turn left up Narragansett Avenue to what attracts most visitors to Newport. In the mid-19th century, wealthy Southerners wanting to escape their steamy summers built summer homes on Bellevue. Then came the wealthy Yankees who went one step up and built mansions along the north shore facing the ocean. Today the mansions remain, a remnant of America’s Gilded Age. We pass monstrous French-style chateaus, Italian-style piazzas and Elizabethan-style manor houses, many surrounded by American-style fuck-you fences. Running along the north end is the Cliff Walk that offers stupendous views of the mansions on one side and the deep, blue Atlantic on the other.

The crown jewel of Newport’s long mansion necklace is The Breakers. It’s a 70-room, five-story Italian Renaissance palace sitting on 14 acres near the far northeast end of the peninsula. It has 20 bathrooms with 15 bedrooms on the second and third floor that housed the 40 servants. Marina and I walk in and above us are four giant chandeliers with 16 bulbs each. The opera house in Paris inspired the fountains and curving staircase. The dining room is the size of a ballroom with two huge chandeliers over a 10-foot-by-10-foot table decorated with Baccarat crystal. The columns throughout the house are solid alabaster. The walls are made from the famed cipollino marble in Italy, the same marble Michelangelo used. One bathtub is cut from a single block of marble. Every light fixture is fitted for gas in case the electricity ever goes out. If everything goes black, there’s a six-foot-high fireplace.

The Breakers' entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

The Breakers’ entryway and staircase were inspired by Paris opera houses.

In 1855 Cornelius Vanderbilt III bought the grounds for $450,000 (about $12 million today) from money he earned in his huge New York Central Railroad empire. He hired famed architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a mansion befitting his label of “New Renaissance in the U.S.” Vanderbilt held huge parties on the gargantuan lawn that separates the home from the ocean. Walking around the grass you feel like you should be holding a champagne flute. CNN broadcaster Anderson Cooper is Vanderbilt’s great, great, great grandson and is said to have stayed here on a few occasions.

Yes, Newport oozes money like honey squeezed from a tube. We see candy apple-red Ferrari convertibles and men whose shoes, shorts, matching sweater and shades are worth more than my entire wardrobe in Rome. The Brooks Brothers store has an elaborate flower garden in front of it. The city buses are as elaborately decorated as San Francisco cable cars. People rent cars that look like Lamborghinis.

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

Peter and Gretchen Bloom, Marina and I

But unlike in Monaco, where everyone lies to impress each other, Newport’s populace is as down to earth as the mansions’ lawns that could pass for fairways at Augusta National. Newport originated in the 17th century as a place where people could escape religious persecution. Everyone is welcome in Newport. People kayak and bicycle and jog. They barbecue on their porches. Peter cooked us incredible teriyaki swordfish one night; Gretchen cooked us massive scallops the next. Locals drink beer and watch the Newport Gulls, the highly popular college summer-league team that plays in 81-year-old Cardines Field sporting a retro sign reading “BASEBALL GAME TODAY.” One block off the ritzy harbor, the east end of Thames Street sports old-fashioned barber shops, take-away pizza joints and an old-fashioned malt shop called Gary’s Handy Lunch that serves one of the better cheeseburgers I’ve had. Even Marina, a third-generation Roman, said the tomato pizza slice at little Via Via “was great and similar to pizza in Rome on the street.”

We drive through Brenton Point State Park, on the southeast corner where people fly kites in an expansive grass area across Ocean Avenue from the Rhode Island Sound. People picnic. I see a kid playing with a yo-yo. We drink a Rhode Island tradition, Del’s frozen lemonade, from a truck stand. Newport is like a sultan’s palace with a country town right across the street.

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The Aquidneck. Photo by Marina Pascucci

After seeing so much water, we decide to get on it. The Aquidneck is the longest boat for harbor cruises in Newport at 80 feet long. We leave at 6:15 p.m. with a full boat and jovial crew who start passing out beer and champagne before we barely exit the slip. The Aquidneck is modeled after a 17th century storage vessel that was used to mail cargo up and down the coast. “It was the FedEx of its time,” one of the sailing guide says.

We pass Fort Adams which was built in 1851 and lasted through five wars but never fired a shot.

“The only thing fought at Fort Adams was boredom,” the guide says.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

Me and Marina on board the sunset cruise.

The sun is starting to set through the clouds as a party boat motors past playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.” We pass the mansions standing like castles on grassy lawns. Seagulls fly through the setting sun slowly as if basking in the dwindling warmth. The temperature is in the high 60s but with champagne and Marina at my side, it feels much warmer.

Rome is paradise. But it’s paradise with flaws. The only flaw Newport has is maybe it’s too perfect. It’s like you’re afraid to knock a gum wrapper on the spotless street or you’ll suddenly burst into flames. Even the birds seem happy here. The opulence is gaudy. But you don’t have to be a member of the New York Yacht Club or bathe in a marble bathtub to enjoy Newport. All it takes is a seat by the water and a glass of champagne.

Of course, a sailboat helps.

Maine’s Decadent Coast: Art, seafood and witches brew up an inviting corner of America

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Penaquid Point Lighthouse is one of 52 working lighthouses in Maine. Photo by Marina Pascucci

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — One of the reasons I travel, besides self-loathing insecurity in college, was my family’s bookshelves. Our back room in Eugene, Ore., was lined with National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s. I’d pick one and transport myself to the wilds of Papua New Guinea, an island in French Polynesia or a museum in Rome.

One day I ran across a story on the Maine Coast. I never thought much about Maine. Other than it being the far northeast corner of the U.S., I figured it was populated by lumberjacks firing slap shots from the wing and lobsters on city councils. I immediately recognized Maine natives when they mangled the name of their prize resort town of Bar Harbor into “Bah Hawbah.” My own naivete is usually an indication that it’s something I must explore. I read on. It told of quaint harbor towns, isolated islands, an artsy populace and lobsters. Lots of lobsters. The Maine Coast became one of the few American destinations on a bucket list the length of the Eiffel Tower.

More than 40 years later, I finally made it last week. My girlfriend, Marina, had visited the U.S. four times but never New England; I’d never been to small towns on the Maine Coast. With Norwegian Airlines’ bargain-basement 500-euro round trip ticket from Rome to Providence, R.I., (an unheard of price from Rome in August), it was a tailor-made for her August break.

We started in Portland, Maine’s major city, where we met my good friend, Hal, a fellow refugee from the Las Vegas Review-Journal in the ‘80s. We both survived a string of cretinous sports editors and a skinflint publisher to blossom elsewhere. He returned to his hometown of Portland where he is looking toward approaching retirement like a fisherman seeing shore. Hal is a true Mainer. He didn’t pronounce his first “R” until he was 28. Like most of Maine, which has voted Democrat in every presidential election since 1992, he has a liberal bent. He said the state is carried politically by Portland, No. 2-city Bangor and the nature-loving, arts-driven towns along the coast. It gets more conservative the farther north you go.

“The far north is Alabama,” Hal said.

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland's Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The arts are big in Maine, even on Portland’s Old Harbor. Photo by Marina Pascucci

He met us in Portland’s Old Harbor. It’s a huge stretch of inner-city portages that hasn’t lost its charm by its size. Big ferry boats and weathered fishing boats dock in the big harbor. Restaurants serving up lobster rolls and clam chowder line the docks, all overlooking a cobalt blue Atlantic Ocean. The smell of fish and salt and soup filled the warm air. Souvenir shops that were once rough-and-tumble fisherman bars are on nearly every corner. One sports a sign reading, “The lobster you’re eating now was sleeping on the bottom of Casco Bay today.”

I’d visited Hal before. That was two years ago in February when all of Portland was blanketed in snow and the temperature was in the high 20s. Its famed Portland Head Light, the oldest of Maine’s 52 working lighthouses, looked ready to guide Russian icebreakers.

Last week it was in the high 70s, marking Maine as one of the few places on earth comfortable to visit in August. The sky was the color of the South Pacific. Seagulls happily flew overhead, singing loud and sweet. Tourists were everywhere.

As we stood waiting for our ferry to my first Maine island, Hal talked about Maine’s political scene. I had trepidation about visiting the U.S. It was my first visit since the November presidential election sent my country and planet tailspinning into inevitable doom. I didn’t know how I’d react if I met a supporter of the Cheeto-faced cumsicle we elected. I promised Marina I wouldn’t get into any bar fights. The best way to avoid it is go against one of my tenants for travel: I would not talk to locals.

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Peaks Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Portland. Photo by Marina Pascucci

I shouldn’t have worried. In Maine I’m safe. Hal said Maine has a liberal soul but recently developed a conservative voice. The governor is Paul LePage, a small-town redneck who catapulted into the governor’s chair from his mayor’s job in Waterville, Maine. He made the biggest tax cuts in Maine’s history and disparaging remarks about minorities, gays and abortion among other liberal hot points.

Sound familiar?

“He calls Portland ‘The People’s Republic of Portland,’” Hal said with a proud smile.

This area we were exploring goes by another name: the Decadent Coast. It’s where artists and environmentalists, retirees and young couples tired of the city, gather to carve out a life where free thinking is the only thought worth having. If I’m going to spend 10 days in a country that has never been more divided in my lifetime, the Decadent Coast is my kinda place.

Peaks Island is one of 4,600 islands listing a Maine address. Along the 20-minute ferry ride, we passed what looked like a flooded fort.

“It’s our Civil War fort,” Hal said. “It was half completed and then the war ended.”

Peaks Island is one of the idyllic islands I may have seen in National Geographic. Its tiny two-lane main road meanders along the coastline dotted with big houses with sweeping verandas. People cruised by on bicycles and golf carts with not a tee box in sight. Lycra-clad yuppies on expensive bikes waited for ferries talked of staining their wood houses. Pampered dogs panted happily.

Me, Marina and Hal at the Inn on Pikes Island.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.

Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobsters last year.

We sat for lunch at The Inn on Peaks Island, which occupies the bottom floor of a huge gray townhouse with a roomy dining porch. For months I had raved to Marina about Maine lobster. Last year Maine fishermen caught 130 million pounds of lobster worth a cool $533 million. More than 4,000 miles is a long way to get disappointed. She wasn’t. The lobster brought to our table filled the length of the plate and was as meaty and juicy as any in the world. The best part? Where else can you get two lobsters with salad and a large sandwich, plus beer for $70? In Rome you’d need a lobster loan.

On the drive north, Marina discovered one of the factors in America’s massive (pun intended) obesity problem. I don’t remember going 15 minutes without passing a Dunkin Donuts. It makes the near libelous claim of having “America’s greatest coffee.” Marina ordered a cappuccino and nearly needed a crane to lift the grotesque paper cup to her lips. Dunkin Donuts does, however, have fantastic donuts. Covered in chocolate and white icing and chocolate bits or chocolate glaze, they are as addictive as crack cocaine and nearly as dangerous. I tried explaining to Marina that when I lived in Denver donuts were the perfect hangover cure. Unfortunately, Italians drink so little the Italian language doesn’t even have a word for “hangover.” Marina looked at me savoring a speckled chocolate glaze with the same curiosity as someone watching a hippo eat in a zoo.

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Our base for our Maine exploration was Boothbay Harbor, a village of about 2,000 people wedged in between two rivers flowing slowly into the Atlantic. It served as a fishing camp for the English in the 17th century and remained a fishing center through the 19th century. At one time, its vast harbor held up to 500 ships. Today, tourism has overtaken fishing as its bell cow. Its twisty, narrow, one-way streets above the still charming harbor attract visitors from around the state. Bar Harbor, spoiled long ago, gets more of the national mob.

We took one of Maine’s many bed & breakfasts and got a big break when we checked into the Beach Cove Waterfront Inn. A family had cancelled that morning and for another $10 a night we were upgraded to an executive king suite. It had a huge deck overlooking a peaceful inlet at the base of a forest. We stood on the deck and watched the sun glistening off the meandering river. A dog chased a ball into the water. Seagulls chirped above. The sun set just behind the pine trees as the temperature dipped to 70, which felt like a cloudburst in a desert after Rome’s sweltering summer. I took my novel to read but it remained overturned on my lap. I just wanted to look.

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me on the deck of our king suite. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The suite’s bed was about a $5 cab ride to the bathroom. Complete with swimming pool and a breakfast featuring fresh blueberry muffins, fruit and frosted cinnamon rolls, we were in New England heaven. Not that Marina was happy but I heard her say “Boothbay Hawbah.”
Marina on the river behind our B&B.

Marina on the river behind our B&B.

Our next road trip was an exploration of all the cute Maine coastal villages I read about as a kid. However, before leaving Boothbay Harbor city limits, a public market rubbernecked us onto its grass lot. We wandered around sampling homemade maple syrup, local cheddar cheese, grass-fed beef jerky and fruity jams. Locals chatted about upcoming arts fairs and the weather. It’s a slice of Americana Marina never saw in her Italian textbooks.
Maple syrup at the public market

Maple syrup at the public market

Maine produces 90 percent of the world's wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Maine produces 90 percent of the world’s wild blueberries. Photo by Marina Pascucci

The drive up Maine’s Highway 1 (Marina: “Does every state have a Highway 1?”) is an environmentalist’s dream. A thick forest separated us from the crystal clear Atlantic. The small towns had as many dinosaurs as it had litter. Small blueberry stands lined the highway, reminding me that Maine produces 25 percent of the world’s blueberries and 90 percent of the wild ones.

Our first stop was Rockland, a community of about 7,000, seemingly half with a paintbrush and art studio at home. We stopped at a store called The Flower Goddess, a combination flower shop and art store. Co-owner Mark Anderson is from Long Island but has lived here 40 years and chatted with me about his personal paradise while Marina perused the collection of colored beads for her trollbeads bracelet.

“I would never live anywhere else,” Anderson said.

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci

Rockland Photo by Marina Pascucci

Tan, fit with thinning hair, Anderson calls Rockland “the arts capital of Maine” and it has attracted so many artists, “there are too many to count.” The Harbor Square Gallery has pieces such as a sculpture of the top half of a hippo for a cool $26,000. The nearby Farnsworth Art Museum is considered one of the top regional museums in the country.

Rockland is a friendly happy town that drops to about 2,000 inhabitants during the off season. Anderson never locks his home. He never locks his car. In fact, it stood outside the shop with the keys in the ignition.

“Why not?” he said. “That way I always know where they are.”

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci

Harbor Square Gallery Photo by Marina Pascucci

I asked about their wide, round candles. They seemed odd in an arts and flowers store. Not in Maine. New England has an eerie history, not just of revolution but of witchcraft. Salem, Mass., just 175 miles to the south, was the site of the famed witch trials of 1692 when 156 people were accused of witchcraft and many burned at the stake. While most were probably innocent, Anderson said witchcraft is still practiced in this part of Maine, putting the “decadent” in Decadent Coast. The place has a healthy dose of pagan population. The candles are spell candles to inspire feelings ranging from evil to stimulation. He also carries tarot cards and crystals, minerals capable of amplifying vibrational energy. I saw dreamcatchers, looped ornaments designed to fend off bad dreams.

I asked him if he has eye of newt.

“No, I don’t deal with perishables,” he said.

He thought I was serious.

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci

Camden Photo by Marina Pascucci

Continuing north, we stopped in Camden, a former shipbuilding town that has the prettiest harbor in Maine. Long and broad, it’s lined with everything from motorized dinghies, to motor boats to tall, majestic windjammers. It’s all set in front of mountains of the Camden Hills State Park, so inspiring I wanted to drop my pad and pen for an easel and brush. Tourists sat under umbrellas along the harbor waiting for harbor cruises.

Marina panned her eyes along the water and towering boat masts and said, “No Italians come here.”

We later took a seat at the Seadog Brewing Company. Maine’s beer scene, befit a population with artsy tastes, has been booming for years. My fellow journalist, Kate Cone, even wrote a second book about Maine beer last year called “What’s Brewing in New England: A Guide to Brewpubs and Craft Breweries.” Every pub has a different local beer they boast and each one seemed to be better than the last. I had something called a Sea Dog Pale Ale. Ice cold, unlike some beers you get in Rome, it went perfect with my blueberry salad.

Blueberry salad

Blueberry salad

A note about the food in Maine: It’s more than Dunkin Donuts and lobster — (although that combination would be great for a hangover). The environmentalists and artists live healthy and eat healthy. The menus are dotted with seafood. Over three days we had stuffed amberjack, clam chowder, seafood chowder, smoked salmon and haddock. Combined with the lobster roll I had when we started the trip in Boston, if I had anymore seafood I’d meow.

We finished the day in Belfast where the working-class vibe and down-home eateries transport you back to Maine in the ‘60s. The shipbuilding plant the size of an airplane hangar housed a yacht that could comfortably fit the Maine Coast Guard. We walked along the harbor and rested on a grassy knoll where a young woman sunbathed and a man slept. An old man sat sunning himself with his feet on the rock wall.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.

Belfast is working class and a step back in time.

While working class, Belfast maintains the same unwavering optimism and cheery outlook the Decadent Coast has about life. Buying groceries, I saw the clerk was a teenage boy wearing a football camp shirt. I asked how good the high school football was in Maine. He thought for a minute and finally said, “It’s not the worst.”

Badly in need of exercise after way too much driving — and stopping at nearly every Dunkin Donuts — the next day we drove around the peninsula from Boothbay Harbor. On Pemaquid Point is perhaps Maine’s most moneyed lighthouse. At least, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse is on the back of every Maine quarter. Built in 1827, leveled by the sea and rebuilt in 1835, the lighthouse itself doesn’t stand out. It’s the setting. It sits up the hill looking down at the royal blue Atlantic Ocean. Hard rocks form a comfortable walking path that lead to the shore where little pools form for wading. The temperatures were in the high 70s but the wind off the sea kept us as cool as clams before the chowder.

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci

Me at the Dodge Point trail. Photo by Marina Pascucci

We backtracked around the peninsula and stopped at Dodge Point. It’s a network of trails snaking through a thick forest and empties out onto the Damariscotta River. It’s a leisurely, flat two-mile hike under a towering canopy where the sun breaks through the tall pines. We reached the river that was as calm as a countryside lake. We saw one lone house along the entire river. We didn’t see another person. We took off our shoes and waded in the warmest the river would be all year. In the 70s, maybe it’s not swimmable but definitely good to soak after five days in the Great Northeast.
Marina in the Damariscotta River

Marina in the Damariscotta River

Later in our room, ESPN blasted from our big-screen TV. I hadn’t heard American sports in nearly a year. Yet news of baseball and the McGregor-Mayweather fight and even the approaching season of my favorite sport, college football, couldn’t get me to turn my head. Instead I sat on the balcony, drinking a glass of Chardonnay, watching gulls dive for fish. I could smell the sea salt from behind the pines. The sun started to fade.

With all the turmoil and anger and separation in the U.S., it’s good to come home and see America is still beautiful. It’s decadent — in all the right ways.

Cleaning day: Clearing my past in Denver clears my future in Rome

My Public Storage unit was costing me $158 a month.

My Public Storage unit was costing me $158 a month.

DENVER — How long does it take to wipe out 23 years of memories? It turns out, about a week. That’s how long it took me to clean out my Public Storage space in my old stomping grounds in Denver.

Out went my collection of about 150 college sweatshirts and an equal number of T-shirts from around the world. For some reason, I could not get a single offer on my Cleveland State sweatshirt or KGB T-shirt I bought in that public market in St. Petersburg. I tossed blown-up, framed photos of native dancers in Yap and the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal. Also out went the comfy, leather office chair where I penned the vast majority of my stories and blogs over the past two decades. Along with it went my bed which …

… wait a minute. I don’t have many memories from that bed.

That’s just one of the reasons why this past week in Denver confirmed the feeling in my heart, soul and brain that Rome is home. I missed Rome from the moment I left and missed it more with every overpriced glass of wine I bought and every minute stuck in a growing traffic problem that reminded me of Beijing at rush hour.

I had 23 years of memories in that space.

I had 23 years of memories in that space.

The purpose of the trip was to downsize. Since moving to Rome in January 2014, Public Storage twice jacked up my rent from $100 a month to the larcenous price of $158. Emptying it will save me nearly $2,000 a year. Hell, that’s almost as much as I spend on wine. Besides, I will not pay $158 a month for furniture I’ll never sit on again and clothes I’ll never wear again. What good are college sweatshirts in Rome? I look so American I could have hopped off a Chevrolet commercial. If I walk around in a USC sweatshirt, I’ll look like I hopped off an American Express bus.
... and now there are none.

… and now there are none.

Home Again Furniture, a terrifically friendly and professional used furniture store, paid me $50 to take most of my old furniture off my hands and haul it away. I’m a guy. I didn’t get sentimental when I saw my old chest of drawers in the back of their van. Patio furniture? Good riddance. You were often covered in snow.
Isaac of Home Again Furniture gave me a huge assist.

Isaac of Home Again Furniture gave me a huge assist.

It was my first time back in Denver in two years. Unlike the first trip, this time I felt as if I’d been away overseas. I forgot how to find my local Goodwill store. I got lost in my neighborhood looking for a street I once drove by nearly every day. I forgot the number of the local bus I took. I found myself addressing people in Italian. “Scusa,” I would say to people I bumped into on the street. The grocery clerk looked perplexed when I accidentally told her, “Grazie mille.” However, I became more polite by reacting to a $50 parking ticket near a crowded park with “CAZZO!” instead of my old refrain, “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I drew only curious looks rather than mothers covering their children’s ears.

So much of my week in Denver made me chant my now steady mantra: Rome is home. On my first night shortly after checking into the guest room in my old condo building, I watched my first baseball game in three years. It was just a few innings of the Colorado Rockies game on TV and it hit me. I’d picked up where I left off three years ago. I was doing the same thing as when I lived in Denver. As I frantically drove around town, I listened to the same sports radio talk shows I heard before. I got so bored with Broncos talk I nearly drove off the road, my reaction usually reserved to when I accidentally hear a few chords of “Hotel California.” How long can two radio guys analyze the pass rushing ability of the weak-side linebacker?

I did meet old friends at Bastien's, my favorite steakhouse in Denver.

I did meet old friends at Bastien’s, my favorite steakhouse in Denver.

The thought of continuing these mind-numbing activities as a retired journalist made me shudder. I realized that my love for Italy is something I can’t get in Denver. The No. 1 reason I love Italy, besides having the prettiest girlfriend in Europe, is the lifestyle. It’s impossible to duplicate it in Denver. Denver has no piazzas. Its coffee culture consists of ordering a triple venti soy no foam latte at Starbucks and walking around drinking out of a disgusting plastic cup. I tried for 11 years to cook Italian in Denver. It can’t be done. The tomatoes aren’t sweet enough. The Parmesan doesn’t have enough bite. It’s impossible to buy fresh pasta. Soccer remains a third-tier sport in the U.S. The local Colorado Rockies play in Commerce City, an industrial suburb that in parts reminds me of Gary, Ind. People don’t meet in restaurants in Denver; they meet on the Internet. I don’t want to sit at my coffee table late at night, half buzzed, reading some woman’s profile about enjoying walks on the beach. Why would I want to compete with 1,500 other lonely men hoping for a thumbs up emoji?
Paella at Atticus.

Paella at Atticus.

Another area where I found comfort in Rome is Denver has gotten outrageously expensive. Rome is cheaper, not only for food and wine but housing as well. One of my many friends with no benefits helped me go through my condo with my rental agent and offered suggestions for a future renovation. As payback I took her to a new restaurant nearby. Colorado has three types of typical food: One, Rocky Mountain oysters. It’s an exotic name for what really are steer testicles. But that’s better than what they called them in the Old West: swingin’ steaks; two, buffalo. It tastes like rich hamburger but has less fat than chicken; three, garden-to-plate restaurants where all the ingredients are natural and locally grown. It’s healthy but often over-the-top au naturale where it takes longer to read the listed ingredients than it does to eat them.

Atticus fits in the third category. I ordered seafood paella. Neither seafood or paella is native to Colorado but the menu is, as its brochure states, “designed around Colorado’s small producers.” The menu listed paella including scallops, chorizo sausage, clams and shrimp. And it’s true. It did. It had one scallop, one slice of chorizo beef, about four shrimp and six clams. I’ve been to Spain. Paella is usually served in a dish the size of a pizza pan. Paella can feed a rugby team. At Atticus it’s served in what looked like a soup bowl. Price: $24. I didn’t find a glass of wine less than $9. I walked out paying $80. I also walked out hungry.

Then again, at least Atticus isn’t guilty of contributing to American obesity. Speaking of which, I guiltily admit I ate breakfast twice at one of America’s cholesterol castles: Denny’s. All fall I purposely avoided buying Bisquick pancake mix at Castroni, Rome’s international food store, so I could eat pancakes at Denny’s, which built its annual $500 million industry around them, among other deliciously fattening American breakfast standards. Denny’s is to American obesity what Donald Trump is to racism. Just looking at the menu can add five pounds. On the inside of their glossy four-page plastic menu is an item that sounded designed by an 8-year-old with marijuana munchies.

Denny's Peanut Butter Cup Pancake.

Denny’s Peanut Butter Cup Pancake.

Peanut Butter Cup Pancakes.

It’s chocolate and white chocolate chips inside two pancakes topped with fudge and drizzled with peanut butter sauce. Along with two eggs, hash browns and sausage or bacon, it’s $7.89. It looks like the winner of a giant cookie contest. I wanted to ask the waitress if the order comes with a gurney.

Cherry Cricket's bison cheeseburger.

Cherry Cricket’s bison cheeseburger.

Bastien's sugar steak.

Bastien’s sugar steak.

Devil's Food's breakfast burrito.

Devil’s Food’s breakfast burrito.

But I also had some fantastic American food that you can’t find anywhere in Italy. I did have the bison burger. They serve one of the best at Cherry Cricket, a dive bar in the hoity-toity Cherry Creek neighborhood where divorcees cruise the streets in convertibles hoping to find a man rich enough to buy her a new model. I had the legendary sugar steak at Bastien’s, a 1950s style steakhouse with red velour carpeting and a continuous loop of Frank Sinatra songs. You’re eating Caesar salad and you think the Rat Pack is going to walk in. At Devil’s Food, on the rollicking South Gaylord Strip, I had another great American breakfast standby: the breakfast burrito. It’s scrambled eggs, potatoes, green onions and bacon stuffed in a tortilla and covered in salsa and melted cheese. Someone mentioned that I looked as if I’d lost weight. I didn’t take it as a compliment.

Obviously, I did something about it.

Oregon State vs. Colorado at Boulder's Folsom Field.

Oregon State vs. Colorado at Boulder’s Folsom Field.

Food isn’t the biggest thing I miss about America. No. 1 remains college football. It has been my passion since my father took me to me my first Oregon game in 1962. It’s the sport I covered at The Denver Post for 16 years. I returned to Boulder where I watched Colorado play Oregon Straight, the team I grew up loathing like disease and Republicans. In the three years I’ve been away, Colorado has gone from one of the worst teams in the country to Top 25. They blew out the Rodents, er, Beavers, 47-6. The Buffaloes are fast, disciplined and skilled. Leaving in 2013 and returning this month was like going to sleep in Barstow and waking up in Barcelona. That’s one of the lines I used in a column I wrote for, the fledgling website started by my old boss at The Post.

However, as the game droned on to its conclusion, something hit me. Yes, it was fun to return to the old press box, see ex-colleagues and gasp at the Buffs’ improvement. But the thought of having to write another story for Monday and another for Tuesday and Wednesday and … made me realize that retirement was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Coupling it with retiring to Rome, I am living a dream none of Colorado’s marijuana edibles could produce.

I lived in Colorado for 23 years. I lived in Oregon for 22. But even jogging around my old gorgeous Washington Park, I came to inescapable conclusion. I wanted to go home.

I wanted to go home to Rome.