Yes, it was crowded, even with the required reservations, but the atmosphere in Oga’s Cantina is pure Star Wars, which, for me, is pure bliss, with the added bonus chuckle that those who wring their hands over KIDS IN BREWPUBS will find them standing at the bar here; they may not serve droids, but there are great non-alcoholic options for younger set, or, equally, those not looking to get bombed at 10 am, if that happens to be your appointed time. While there is limited seating, you’re unlikely to get it unless you’re with a very large group – we ended up standing at the bar on both our visits, which was fine for our teenager (who is, after all, taller and much more glamorous than I am), but a little tricky for our preschooler, who needed help to reach her drink.
And what did we drink? We went for funny drinks in souvenir mugs the first time around, so that meant the Hyperdrive (Punch It) for the aforementioned preschooler and the Yub Nub for me. While I’m not generally a huge fan of fruity cocktails, the Yub Nub was well-made and refreshing.
Fun fact: when we went back later in the week, the beer flights were no longer available as they had completely sold out of the racks; a regular pint was still an option, but no tasters. Our very helpful bartender (this is Disneyland, after all, and, as always, the Cast Members were all great) told us that they were not expecting them to be back in stock until September. On that visit they were also unable to serve the Bespin Fizz, which was a shame as I’d very much wanted to try it, but the dry ice powering the ‘cloud swirl’ of the drink was out of stock; appropriate enough, I suppose – Lando Calrissian himself had ‘…supply problems of every kind…’ – so even that is on-theme. But as for the beer itself, it’s from New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Ballast Point and Blue Point, albeit with in-universe names; I quite enjoyed the Gamorrean Ale. And, small aside – I’ll have a separate post on beer in Anaheim in general later, now that I have some time to blog once more.
Other drinks we tried included the T-16 Skyhopper, which was Not My Thing, and The Outer Rim, which was more my style. Both offspring went for the Blue Bantha, which is Blue Milk with a tasty cookie. The texture is a bit different from the Blue Milk served outside the Cantina – it seemed a little ‘meltier’ – but the taste is the same, and it’s still effectively a frozen drink. We tried both ‘milk’ colors, green and blue, but all agreed we were very much Team Blue Milk.
Of course, it’s really about the atmosphere, and while as of now you only get 45 minutes in Oga’s Cantina at a time (though you can now make your reservations in advance, rather than only on the same day), it’s a really fun 45 minutes. DJ R-3X has landed on Batuu and is now dropping some sick beats (and telling terrible Dad Jokes) while you enjoy your drink. I won’t do a complete rundown of everything in Galaxy’s Edge (I GOT TO FLY THE MILLENNIUM FALCON I GOT TO FLY THE MILLENNIUM FALCON I GOT TO FLY THE MILLENNIUM FALCON, WE MADE A LIGHTSABER AND A DROID AND IT WAS LIFE), I highly recommend the Datapad experience, which I thought I’d try for a few minutes, only to find myself going back alone later to scan crates and hack panels for the Resistance, though it’s possible I am the very specific target audience for this activity.
I am not wholly certain what Galaxy’s Edge is like for people who are not hardcore Star Wars fans since that is entirely beyond my experience, but if anything, it only whetted my appetite for the eventual immersive Star Wars hotel that’s coming to Disneyworld – if anyone would like me to compare their Galaxy’s Edge to the one on the left coast, I’m all (Mickey) ears!
Thanks to advantageous flight and Airbnb pricing because of the still-erupting volcano several islands away, we recently made our second trip to Hawaii. While we also went back to Disney Aulani, because the pull of The Mouse (and included babysitting) is strong, we spent some time in (suddenly-affordable) Waikiki, and got to know a bit more about the local beer scene. There's a lot to like, and, I suspect, an interesting recent history to be unearthed.
Particularly relevant to my interests is the fact that every local brewery seems to have a really good brown ale in their lineup; on our previous trip, we also found a number of solid porters and stouts (both with coconut and without), plus some excellent pale ales, most calibrated at a more 'British' than 'American' ABV/IBU profile. Additionally, good bottle shops stock a wide variety of excellent 'normal' European beers that are harder to find than they should be on the left half of the US mainland (more on that below). And while I haven't had a chance to delve deep into Hawaiian beer history to know the real reasons why, these all seemed like potentially plausible notions:
- Local coffee culture could mean people want roasty flavors with their beer as well. As a non-coffee person, I have no idea whether this is even vaguely true - nothing tasted much like coffee to me - but locals and visitors do seem very committed to the idea that Kona coffee is superior, and it may bleed over into beer.
- With so many (often excellent) fruity drink options, those seeking out beer want it to taste like, well, beer.
- Supply chain realities may make brewing stranger, higher-ABV beers simply too expensive in many cases.
- Tourists from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and China, of whom there are many in Hawaii, may prefer traditional beer varieties.
- Hawaii brewers might hail from the first and second waves of US craft brewers (microbrewers!), and those beers tended to be more British-inspired.
Again, the real driver(s) may be a mixture of those thoughts, or none of the above, but for a fan of a well-brewed beer that seems to have missed the high-ABV arms race on the US mainland, there is a lot to like. Without further ado, here are a few standout breweries:
Waikiki Brewing Company
As mentioned, the English Brown Ale was the standout for me, but I also very much enjoyed the Ala Moana Amber. I didn't try the Hana Hou Hefe straight up, but did have to go for a beachy beer cocktail with it as the base; it was quite delightful. Although it was a hot evening and the bar is largely outdoors, it was quite temperate; perfect lanai dining. The lineup here is not huge, but everything was worth trying.
Maui Brewing Company
While certain of their beers are ubiquitous in cans around Oahu, we were very glad to visit one of their (air-conditioned, indoor) brewpubs, which had an excellent lineup of local one-offs, seasonals and kid- and adult-friendly dining options that were certainly a step above some of the very touristy Waikiki options. Once more, their brown ale, Lahaina Town Brown, was very good, but their Pueo Pale Ale may have been my favorite; it was very fresh, perfectly balanced and well worth a second. I later enjoyed their Pineapple Mana Wheat poolside back at Aulani - the adults-only pool area is ideal for enjoying a refreshing drink with a book - it would make a fantastic go-to beer on a hot day. But I loved the Pueo Pale Ale so much I bought the (beautifully-designed) t-shirt - it was an all-around excellent beer.
This (pictured) is now our favorite Hawaiian brewery - in fact, we liked it so much we bought several prints of their labels to frame and hang up next to some of our 'vintage' Dogfish Head posters. It was still island-casual, but with a large rotating taplist, excellent merchandise options with fits for all genders, ages and sizes, and plenty of games for the kids to enjoy while the grownups had a sampler tray or two. Again, there was a fine brown ale in the Makakilo Brown, and a fantastic gose under the name Meyer Lemon Sour. CoCoWeizen is exactly what you think it is, and it's very tasty indeed, and really, everything we tried was to a high standard. I wore my tank top with pride as we climbed Diamond Head the next day (which, if you're keeping score at home, was very easy for our 3-year-old, and asking nearly the impossible for her teenaged brother, because reasons).
Of course, good beer (and tropical drinks) are found in many places beyond breweries, and I can highly recommend these bars:
Village Bottle Shop & Tasting Room
This is a great little bottle shop and taproom inside the Salt complex - a really nicely-planned example of creative re-use of older industrial buildings, full of interesting food and retail. It's almost like a little bit of Portland dropped into Honolulu, and it's a welcome break from the largely-uninspired high-rise hotels along the beach, with murals and other street art all around. The well-curated taplist was very much to my liking, even if it's a little bizarre that I have to fly 2500 miles across the Pacific to find one of my favorite British beers, Ridgeway Bitter, on tap. They also had Timothy Taylor Landlord in bottles, along with a great variety of Aussie and Kiwi beers (all of which are nearly impossible to find in Seattle). It's a BYO food establishment (with kids welcome during the day), but there's an outstanding butcher shop upstairs that makes one of the best burgers I've ever had. While not within walking distance of the main drag in Waikiki, it is well worth the Lyft or bus ride over.
Moving from Waikiki to Ko Olina, where Aulani is situated, you'll find Monkeypod Kitchen in a small shopping center across from the resorts. The knowledgeable staff is fantastic at recommending a local beer or two, and their tropical drinks are the real deal - the Mai Tai is beautiful and complex, not a sugary mess. The food is also very well-executed, with options for kid and adult appetites. I had more from Honolulu BeerWorks and a few from Aloha Beer Company - their Hop Lei IPA was vastly better here, where they clearly look after their tap lines, than in the bar in the airport; having the same beer in the airport was like an object lesson in Doing It Wrong, but it was very nicely-kept by the top-notch staff in Ko Olina.
The 'ÅŒlelo Room
This is cheating a bit, since it's on Disney property, but their specialty mixed drinks (right) were once again fantastic. The beer isn't quite as exciting (some reasonable beers from Kona Brewing, though supplemented by Maui Brewing in cans), but the cocktails and Drinks You Can Get in a Pineapple are lovely - including the non-alcoholic ones. The 'ÅŒlelo Room is only open in the evenings, but its exclusive drinks and snacks are worth the wait, and you can learn a little of the Hawaiian language while you relax by the koi pond.
If only I could score more vacation time (and an unlimited vacation budget, and so on), I'd love to explore the other islands
Welcome back to the final installment of our Disney Aulani musings and protips. Today’s wholly-unsolicited-but-largely-positive thoughts are on the pools, beach, entertainment and (amazing) spa. Dive in.
Pools & Beach
The pools and hot tubs at Aulani are set around the 'volcano' in the center of the resort; the volcano in question houses two waterslides and is surrounded by the lazy river. There are a few adults-only pools and hot tubs, while most welcome the whole family, but the distribution seems to be close to ideal; I never had a problem finding a calm, quiet, child-free zone when looking for that, and I also found plenty of room to take my kids into beautiful pools and hot tubs, some overlooking the beach and ocean, and one hidden in a bend in the lazy river. As with other Disney resort pools, you show your room key to get a wrist band for pool access and a towel (and vest, for the not-quite-swimming smaller child), though finding a place to put them while you're actually swimming can be a bit of a challenge. There are cubbies next to the snorkeling facilities at Rainbow Reef - also right in the center of the resort - but for the pools, you are left to your own devices to find an empty pool chair to set down your towel and anything else you might have (sandals, etc.). More cubbies would be wonderful; I rarely needed a chair, but would love to have had a convenient place to stash my sandals and towels near the pools.
That would have been especially useful for the (really quite long) periods of time I was watching my smaller child on the Menehune Bridge (more on the Menehune themselves below), which she thought was the best thing that has ever been created - she would have happily stayed there all day. Aimed mostly at the under-5 set, it's a climbing/splashing/sliding structure with a seemingly endless ability to hold the interest of young children. It's not especially restful for the adults, since monitoring kids on the bridge involves a lot of moving back and forth (there's not a single spot that gives you a line of sight across the whole structure, so it's not a question of just relaxing in a pool chair while they splash, especially if they can't swim) - you may be carrying all your things with you while they play. But given that you also have the option of dropping them off at Aunty's Beach House, this need not be your entire vacation, and the kids adore it.
I could have happily stayed on the lazy river in the center of the resort for hours if I didn't need to constantly re-apply sunscreen, and the Volcano Vertical waterslide was gentle-yet-exciting enough for the 3 year old to go on with me. We spent less time at the beach (though it was beautiful, and we did look at it frequently at it from the restaurants, pools and hot tubs), but it was also wonderful. Chairs (with umbrellas) are free for Aulani visitors, and you can borrow sand toys and boogie boards at no additional cost. The Four Seasons part of the beach, only steps away, was nearly always deserted, despite the calm, warm waters and beautiful setting; there seemed to be much, much more to do on the Aulani side.
Music & Entertainment
While I was not expecting a Love Boat-style luau - although that was probably my primary exposure to the concept as a child - I was very impressed by the performances at the (optional add-on) Ka Wa'a luau. Granted, this is Disney, and they generally do a great job of getting top-quality performers at the parks (and, of course, in their wildly successful Broadway shows), but it really exceeded expectations. There's just enough exposure to Mickey and Minnie to keep the smaller children happy, but the full performance is thoughtfully constructed and expertly performed; no one is phoning this in. The actor playing 'Uncle,' in particular, reminded us very much of Brian Stokes Mitchell, at least vocally - for Broadway nerds like us, this was fantastic. The more traditional parts of the performance were the highlights, and they even manage to work in some mild references to colonialism not being so amazing for the native Hawaiians; Song of the South this is not (although it is a little odd to hear a Hawaiian-language version of 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah' in the hotel elevators - I get that it's hard to repackage any intellectual property from Song of the South for a modern audience, but it's still a bit jarring to hear).
But back to Ka Wa'a - the food is also very good, and the pre-show activities, including taro pounding and 'tattoos' were very engaging for the kids (even the surlier teens); the performers do an amazing job of patiently dealing with children and adult tourists before putting on a physically-demanding show, as well as posing for photos before and after.
Hawaiian culture, filtered through Disney magic, is also aimed squarely at the kids via the Menehune Adventure Trail(s). There are two options: a shorter version that's largely indoors (mostly in the lobby), and a longer one that winds through the pools and gardens in the center of the resort. The conceit is that the Menehune, Hawaii's mythical craftspeople, are quietly working their magic around the resort, and that with the help of Aunty and some positive thinking, you can glimpse some of their hidden influence. Once again, the actors in what could have been a very cheesy prepackaged entertainment segment were really wonderful; fully committed to the storyline, and educating everyone along the way.
You check out a tablet from the Pau Hana Community Hall (between 10-7 for the shorter one, and 3-7 for the longer one - unless, of course, you are a DISNEY VACATION CLUB MEMBER*, and then you have more options - plus sparkly pool bracelets) and follow the video instructions from 'Aunty' to trigger the magical effects, many of which are really quite wonderful. You'll also learn a little bit about Hawaiian history and culture along the way. The indoor trail was just about the right length for a 3 year old, and while she enjoyed a lot of the outdoor effects (as did I), it was probably a little too long for her attention span; it would be great if you could pause and resume where you left off, but as the tablets are a little glitchy anyway, that's not currently an option. That point aside, it's really well-designed and absolutely worth doing, even for teens and adults.
We also enjoyed storytelling by the fire pit (both my children probably inaccurately consider themselves experts on Maui lore now) and there are a wealth of activities and talks on traditional Hawaiian arts and crafts in the Pau Hana Community Hall - another option I wish I'd had more time to check out.
Lanawai Spa & Gym
I am a spa nerd; I wish I had more time and disposable income to go to amazing spas all the time. Lanawai Spa is one of the best I've ever been to; it's very close to perfection. The spa at the Grand Californian (just to keep things in a Disney context) is very pleasant, but Lanawai is a proper world-class spa. The treatments are amazing, the staff top-notch and the water garden absolutely fantastic. I loved the range of soaking pools and showers outside, and appreciated the variety of relaxation rooms, both single-sex and co-ed, available for pre/post-treatment Doing Nothing. The infused waters were delightful, and the bite-sized snacks much appreciated. In addition, the tables in the treatment rooms were the most high-tech I've ever personally experienced - amazingly comfortable and versatile. The variety of scents and scrubs perfectly reflected the Hawaiian setting, without going overboard. I tried to talk my older child into the Painted Sky teen spa, but alas, he refused, despite the range of options specifically aimed at young gentlemen; perhaps another time.
The gym next door to the spa was also very well equipped, and surprisingly empty when I'd roll in around 5 am; I assumed it would be full of similarly jet-lagged people, but there was never a problem finding open equipment. The instructor-led fitness classes sounded fantastic, but were (relatively speaking) late in the morning; if I hadn't been doing the Aunty's Beach House lunch line or having an early character breakfast, I would have tried a few out.
Another would-be-nice – how about a runDisney race, since there aren’t any on the west coast for the foreseeable future? Between Moana and Lilo and Stitch, there should be enough locally-themed Disney intellectual property to support different characters for the 5K/10K/half marathon options (though I’m sure finding enough road for a half marathon would be problematic), but it would be amazing. Perhaps someday
This was the ideal first trip to Hawaii for us; as always, Disney made everything easy. On a future trip, we'd like to explore some other islands as well (and, indeed, other parts of Oahu), but Aulani offers a great introduction to Hawaiian culture. The balance of Hawaii-to-Disney is clearly very carefully weighed and considered, and on the whole is a very effective presentation. We’d happily go back any time we aren’t juggling work/school/preschool/etc. – it was, on the whole, a wonderful experience.
*The DISNEY VACATION CLUB manifests itself in four stages on any Disney vacation:
1) Oh, that's funny - I forgot they will try to upsell us on the Disney Vacation Club.
2) *checks numbers again* There is no possible ROI on the Disney Vacation Club, but it's nice to easily re-confirm that.
3) I wonder what the research is on how they position the Disney Vacation Club information stands, it seems really deliberate – oh, hey, the DVC-exclusive merchandise is really cool!
4) EVERYONE SHOULD BUY INTO THE DISNEY VACATION CLUB, IT JUST MAKES SENSE.
Welcome back to another batch of unsolicited Disney Aulani protips and suggestions. We last reviewed (mostly) food and drink, but today is where we really get into the Disney ‘tribal knowledge’ end of things – knowing When to Line Up and What to Buy.
Aunty's Beach House
Aunty's Beach House is the kids' club at Aulani; there are freeplay and 'premium' activities for potty-trained kids ages 3-12 – you could, in theory, leave your children there from morning until night for your entire vacation. Although we have Young People at both ends of that spectrum, the larger one skipped any of the structured activities the resort offered, despite the wealth of tween and teen options; our little one, though, fully embraced the Aunty's Beach House lifestyle and did not want to leave. As with many Things Disney, a little tribal knowledge goes a long way; some of these suggestions aren't necessarily spelled out on the website, so it's worth doing a little digging and advance planning:
- Register online before you go - you'll still need to bring your child and your printed form to finish registration, but this will get you in the system; once you arrive, stop by as soon as you can to complete registration - you'll also need to provide a secret codeword to pick them up, so be sure to think of something memorable.
- Call to book premium experiences in advance - they fill up. You'll have another *opportunity* to purchase photos from the event (more on photos in a bit). We did Kakamora Chaos with Moana, and it was a much-loved activity (including facetime and photos with Moana, plus some really quite nice crafts to take home) - we got the last spot by calling about a week in advance, and the other premium activities that week were completely full when we got around to calling.
- If you want Aunty's to serve your child lunch or dinner (for an additional fee), line up outside before they open to make sure they can get a lunch or dinner ticket. We found arriving around 7.40 am was a good time, and our daughter loved the food.
- The open house from 8-9.30 is the only time you can go into Aunty's Beach House with your child (and take your own pictures) - but if you want to make sure they get in immediately when it opens for drop-offs at 9.30, it's worth leaving a little early to go line up (again) to check them in.
- If you want to do an evening dropoff, you may need to get them there in the later afternoon - it was filling up by 3.30-4 pm.
- While you can send your child to Aunty's Beach House in a swimsuit and coverup, they do need to be dry - make it a pre-pool or beach activity, rather than a post-water one, unless you've had them change.
Once you get through the administrivia, Aunty's Beach House is a breeze - your child has a special green bracelet they can use to scan in and out (they can keep it or you can give it back at the end of your stay for a refund, if you kept your receipt), and there is plenty to do. Characters like Stitch come by to dance and play, there are Hawaiian crafts including lei-making, there's a very nice (fenced) outdoor play area and an enchanted living room (there's the occasional 'storm outside,' similar to the Tiki Room at the Disney parks) with child-sized furniture for watching, say, Moana. The Aunty's Beach House staff were excellent - they kept the kids happy and engaged for hours. Our daughter keeps asking to go back, and compares it favorably to her much-loved pre-school.
If you've been to Disneyland in the past few years, you know that the Disneyland app is incredibly useful - you have a map, ride wait times and character events, plus the ability to book and track dining reservations. The PhotoPass feature in the Disneyland app is also great; it's simple to access your photos and a relatively low-cost add-on. There is no Aulani app, alas; it would be fantastic to make speedy dining, spa and Aunty's Beach House reservations from your phone, but the real miss is the DisneyPhotoPass situation. Your Aulani photos are much, much more expensive than your Disneyland photos, and they are not nearly as easily accessible; you can't get them in the Disneyland app, and on your phone, trying to log in to the DisneyPhotoPass site dumps you in to the Disneyworld login screen; it really only works properly on a desktop computer, so you'll need to save the wristbands you get from the various photographers and add the codes manually once you are back home (unless you are a terrible person who brought a laptop to do work on vacation). You can preview your photos from the TV in your room, or have them added to your account from KÄlepa’s Store, but it's not nearly as seamless (or affordable). It seems like it would be a straightforward add - you'd assume all the Disney photo experiences use the same codebase - but having worked in Big Tech forever, I know that's an unsafe assumption.
Beyond the DisneyPhotoPass pictures, you'll also have other *opportunities* to buy photos - the luau and character dining photographs are also available, albeit for a separate charge, and they arrive via CD(!) - we had to really think whether or not we had a working CD drive before buying them. As always with Disney photographers, the pictures themselves are usually great and very flattering (I suspect that's the real Disney magic), but not having one single digital location (and the additional upcharges) is a bit of a pain. However, there is some pretty interesting metadata on the photos - you can confirm your suspicion that the luau photos of the performers were taken a few years ago, presumably with ideal lighting and weather, and not on the evening you went, but given the team has about an hour to process and make up the photo CDs, it's a reasonable tradeoff.
Additionally, the wifi is not amazing, but you're on vacation, right? Of course, if you are, say, nearly 13 and want to spend your beach and poolside time streaming music and TV (FOR EXAMPLE) this is a bigger issue, but if you don't care about eating through your parents' data plan, you are fine. Just saying.
This being a Disney resort, there are certainly opportunities to take home a bit of the magic, whether that comes in the form of t-shirts, bags, Mickey ears or, of course, Disney pins. (A slight aside for the uninitiated - Disney pins are A Thing, whether you simply buy and collect them or go all-in on pin trading - find out more here). I was actually slightly surprised that there are really only two shops - one with a fairly broad array of merchandise, including essentials like sunscreen, and a higher-end one that focused more on purses and the like. Neither shop is as heavy as they could have gone on Moana items - indeed, while Moana is a prominent character in person at the resort, the range of items for sale is practically restrained by Disney standards. There is a strong focus on the characters that are popular in Japan and China; Gelatoni, Shelliemae and Duffy, all hailing from Tokyo DisneySea, are on offer. I also discovered a secondary Lilo and Stitch character I knew nothing of - one Angel - and now that we are home, we're (naturally) looking to find her in the many and various Lilo and Stitch spinoff properties that seem to exist, since we picked up a not insignificant number of Angel-related items.
One thing has always puzzled me about Disney merchandise - why does Disney not have a dedicated coffee table book division? I would have absolutely made room for an enormous, photograph-heavy hardcover book detailing the design and evolution of Aulani, with a focus on the business decisions, cultural considerations and planning of the resort. I'd equally buy similar books on many of the classic Disneyland attractions - there's an excellent book on the Haunted Mansion, but there could be equally-detailed ones on, say, It's a Small World, the Enchanted Tiki Room, Space Mountain, etc. - there's a wealth of amazing documentation that's is beautifully-arranged in the Walt Disney Archives that would be more accessible (and remuneratively-rewarding) in a fancy book - someone at Disney Publishing should get on this.
But hey, we did get some really nice pins.
Next up: pools, beaches & entertainment
We've just returned from a much-needed (if barely-planned) trip to Aulani, Disney's Hawaiian resort. Although we're relatively recent coverts to the Disney vacation lifestyle, having a bit of Disney-specific knowledge helps make the vacation even more stress-free and relaxing for the whole family. In that spirit, I offer more than a few entirely unsolicited protips and suggestions.
Setting & Rooms
Aulani is a 20-ish minute drive from the airport in Honolulu; we used the recommended Hele Hele shuttle, which is essentially the equivalent of the Disneyland Express bus that runs from LAX and John Wayne airports to the Disneyland and 'good neighbor' hotels. It's not a large, branded bus, but a van (carseats are included for the smaller kids); the service was prompt and friendly. We arrived at night, and the resort is lovely even in the dark - the tree-hung lanterns and torches created a positive impression, even on very tired children (and adults). Despite the late hour, we were warmly greeted with leis and infused water (we didn't notice the Hidden Mickey in the water until the next day), and check-in was very speedy.
The lobby, largely open to maximize the warm breezes, is amazing day or night, though during the day it's possible to take a tablet-driven self-guided tour of the art and design features that provides much more detail and context. Aulani has the world's largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art, and it's thoughtfully displayed everywhere in the hotel. There are, of course, even more Hidden Mickeys - and Menehune (more on them, and the art tour, later) - to be found all over the property.
We booked at the last minute, so had relatively few room options, but even our standard room with 'limited' ocean view had a great vantage point from which to see the ocean and the amazing pools and landscaping below. We ended up with two queen beds, which was a little tight with two kids with a huge age/size gap (and they don't have the extra sofabed that similar rooms have in the Grand Californian - though perhaps we've always just lucked out?), but certainly very do-able for our short stay.
Our flight home was late at night, well after check-out, but the luggage room is very straightforward and there's a suite with lockers to shower and change, so you can fully enjoy your entire day (and you can still charge things to your room until midnight, so no need to carry around your wallet if you're swimming - have that last Dole Whip).
Food & Drink
Speaking of Dole Whips, Aulani offers the Dole Whip Twist, which cuts the pineapple with vanilla, and it rather was wonderful - I wish they offered them at the Disney parks. At the resort, you can get them poolside or beachside. But perhaps my favorite spot at Aulani was the 'ÅŒlelo Room; only open in the evenings, it had amazing cocktails and food - even great vegan tacos (and I say this as a non-vegan who happens to like good vegan tacos). The Hawaiian-language theme and design of the ÅŒlelo Room was well thought-out and beautifully-executed, and I enjoyed their specialty drinks that weren't available at the other resort bars (or, for those that were available at the poolside bars, were much more expertly mixed and presented - the others weren't actively bad, just not quite up to the same standard).
There were one or two reasonable Hawaiian beers from Maui Brewing Company there as well, but most of the 'locals' were from Kona Brewing Company, and no different from their mainland offerings. For more interesting beer, you had to LEAVE THE RESORT and go across the street to Monkeypod, which had friendly, knowledgeable staff and a good selection of locally-brewed beers. I was intrigued to see more brown ales, stouts and porters than I usually see in the Pacific Northwest, so that was a pleasant surprise. There were a few other restaurants and shops in the same complex, so it was handy for cheaper sunscreen and basic groceries.
But back to Aulani: the Ulu CafÃ©, the quick-service restaurant, has quite decent breakfast wraps, and the quality of the tea was another positive surprise - it was rather good! It was even good enough to drink without milk or cream, which is important when your 'cream' option is of the shelf-stable cartridge variety, so perhaps best skipped. For the caffeine addict, you can buy a refillable mug for $18.99 that gets you 'free' refills on tea, coffee or soda throughout your stay (soda refills are located throughout the resort; tea and hot water are at the Ulu CafÃ© checkout, and coffee is outside the cafÃ©); we did find this useful, given the 3-hour time change.
We went to 'Ama 'Ama for a few of our 'fancier' meals, both with and without our smaller one (it's right next door to Aunty's Beach House, discussed in an upcoming post, so very easy to manage a child-free meal) - the brunch was outstanding, and the lunch and dinner options were also wonderful, though just enjoying the beach view from the tables (some covered, some open) was a major factor in enjoying the meal.
While I'm not normally a fan of buffet-style dining, Disney usually makes the effort worthwhile - and the breakfast and dinner buffets at Makahiki were both fantastic. We did a character breakfast, as is our wont at any Disney property, but this had much, much better food than the versions at either the Disneyland Hotel or Grand Californian; of course, there are the standard Mickey waffles, but the Hawaiian breads (and the French toast made with them - with amazing coconut syrup) made things a little more interesting, as did the Asian breakfast options. It’s possible we have now developed a need for taro bread. We enjoyed seeing Mickey, Minnie and Goofy at breakfast, and an appearance by 'Aunty,' leading the smaller children in song, dance and activities around the restaurant was incredibly well-done. Across the board, the performers at Aulani are outstanding.
The dinner buffet was also excellent; the mix of Western, Hawaiian and Japanese options made it more interesting than usual, and the food was well-selected and properly-prepared, which I rarely find to be the case at non-Disney buffet restaurants. The range of desserts was amazing, and I appreciated that they were (nearly) bite-sized; it made it easier to try more of them. As with the rest of the resort, Makahiki has striking Hawaiian artwork throughout, and once again, I'm glad we were able to take the art tour to find out more about the artists and their inspirations for the pieces.
Another Disney protip: make dining reservations, especially for character breakfasts which are often packed, before you travel; while this is a lot easier at the parks via the app (again, more on that in a future post), don't be the party of 10 that showed up behind us without a reservation. Yes, you'll need to call (or arrange it when you arrive), but it's good to be prepared. There are plenty of places you don't need a reservation (ÅŒlelo Room, 'Ama 'Ama,Ulu CafÃ©, the poolside bars), but for Makahiki, call ahead.
Of course, this is Hawaii, so you can also get a shave ice (with or without Mickey ears, though the Mickey ears option isn't amazing when it comes to structural integrity); I can only compare to the slightly-less-tasty ones I've had in Seattle, but I was pleasantly surprised by the flavors - yes, they were sweet, but they weren't overpowering, and there were more than a few more unusual options to add that made it well worth seeking out. An extra towel from the pool area may be useful if you are supervising a small person with the Mickey ears version.
All told, you can eat and drink well without leaving Aulani – and there’s still much more to talk about.
The jet lag may still be lingering, but getting back to London is always worth it. While much has changed since I first moved there in the 1990s - most notably, that everything is so clean, which was absolutely not a feature of so-called Britpop London - it was lovely to see some of my old stomping grounds in a new (visible) light. It's probably fair to say that I drank 'reasonable,' albeit cheap, beer as a postgrad/early career adult back in the day; lots of pints of Directors at my local Wetherspoons, but there wasn't much beyond that, at least so far as I was aware.
Fast forward to the present day, to a (I have to say it again, very clean) London where specialist beer bars and small breweries abound, and there is so much choice that it requires some navigation; for that, we relied on Des De Moor's excellent guidebook, plus regular last-minute Twitter ideas from Melissa Cole and Pete Brown (though we never did make it to his Stoke Newington ‘hood - I looked at a cheap bedsit there nearly two decades ago and would love to go back to see it now, though I'm sure I'd lament not having had the wherewithal to buy some portion of it then, when I had £25/week to spend on rent - I ended up getting something for the same amount in East Ham instead, which had the distinction of being near The Who Shop, though little else - but I digress). We upped the degree of difficulty by having our kids in tow, and while our older one claims he could easily pass for 16 (and he's probably right), finding a place with great beer that is also reasonably welcoming to a 3-year-old is a trickier challenge.
With that in mind, we were thrilled to have great experiences at The Rake, CASK Pub & Kitchen and The Craft Beer Co. Covent Garden. Each one had a fantastic lineup of CASK ALE (I miss real handpumps so much) and a variety of interesting kegged options. They also had friendly, deeply knowledgeable staff and a largely non-bro-y clientele, which was very pleasant indeed. We found traditional pubs a bit more hit and miss (though I'm mindful that we were often firmly in Tourist London, which can veer toward the more generic), but thoroughly enjoyed The George - re-reading Pete Brown's book on the plane was useful - and The Lamb, which was an occasional hangout spot of mine as a student; visiting as an adult with children was a very different experience, as its proximity to Coram's Fields was a major selling point in ensuring a less-fussy meal - and I had one of my best beers of the trip there.
With that segue, I'll again call out the range of cask beer on offer, essentially everywhere we went, which is absolutely not an expectation in Seattle (though I wish it were - it was much more readily accessible in Philadelphia, but there you go). Particular standouts included the aforementioned beer at The Lamb – Jack Brand Mosaic Pale Ale from Adnams was one of the best pale ales I've had in recent memory, and certainly the best cask pale ale I enjoyed. And as it's a Young's house, the Winter Warmer was firmly on the agenda, and as lovely as I remember it. Another favo(u)rite was Barnsley Bitter from Stancill Brewery, which is exactly the sort of beer I wish I had as a regular go-to; it was very nearly perfect. Moving to the dark side, Glamorgan Brewing Co's Welsh Cake Stout was delightful, as was Truman’s Brewery's Original Porter - finally, a good porter! Also of note was a black IPA from Windsor & Eton, Conqueror; ironically, the style seems to have vanished from our home in Cascadia, so it was very pleasing to find a well-crafted, hoppy/dark beer elsewhere. We had two historical beers from The Kernel, and while both were very fine, the edge went to their Export Stout London 1890, which was absolutely fantastic though the Imperial Brown Stout London 1856 was also excellent.
Obviously we did some non-drink-related things too - you may have heard of a can-do little musical called Hamilton, and I have nothing but praise for the talented London cast - and the Harry Potter exhibit at the British Library is well worth a visit. We also made some discoveries and rediscoveries. I've long been a Foyles partisan, but we didn't have a chance to make it to their (still new to me) headquarters. We made up for that omission by taking over Daunt Books and buying up as much of their stock as we could carry (including Boak & Bailey's 20th Century Pub, at long last). Persephone Books made themselves more even more dangerous by ensuring we left with a catalogue, and I enthusiastically recommend the London Transport Museum. While I've been there before alone, there is no better place to take an alternately happy, clingy, angry and curious jet-lagged toddler, and the current exhibit on women artists is spectacular. The kids get to touch, climb and play while adults enjoy the exhibits, and everyone comes out happy (if lighter in the bank account). They also had quite reasonable tea, though the dearth of good tea in London may need to be its own post - why did so many otherwise-good hotels, restaurants and pubs want to foist their Twinings supermarket tea upon us? I realize we may not be the target tourist market, in that there is really great tea everywhere you go in the Pacific Northwest and so we expect it, but it did seem odd that we had to seek out teas we'd normally consider passable, rather than really good. If any venture capitalists are looking for a new vertical, let's get top-quality fair trade tea to become A Thing - only the museum cafes delivered.
Finally, I'll recommend two very different experiences: the London Mithraeum, well-preserved and well-presented underneath the new Bloomberg building, may be one of the best public archaeology installations I've seen. I won't say that no expense has been spared, as I'm sure there's been some sort of trade-off, but it's really very impressive, and should serve as some sort of model for other developers. And as it's only a temporary happening, you should make your way soonish to the Southbank Centre for ABBA: Super Troopers: The Exhibition. If you've ever wondered what an immersive ABBA-themed experience, narrated by the dulcet northern tones of Jarvis Cocker, would be like, wonder no more. It is utterly delightful (and my 12 year old will vouch for this as well).
Out of the many places I've lived, London and New York are still my favorites - hardly surprising for a city-obsessed theatre nerd, but London does edge out New York when it comes to beer; I wish I had more excuses to get back to both more often (ideally, of course, on someone else's dime, but who wouldn't want that?). All outrageous job offers happily considered!
Victoria, BC, has a bit of a reputation for being 'more English than England,' and we put this notion to the test on our most recent trip across the border. It's an easy journey from Seattle, even with a toddler who can ratchet up the degree of travel difficulty considerably, but the sensible people in charge of boarding the Victoria Clipper make sure that you can pre-board with your fussy, awakened-pre-dawn child. The trip is a relatively speedy 2.5 hours, and the quick check at immigration is one of the friendliest I've ever experienced - clearly, there's something to the Canadian stereotype.
There are no water taxis this time of year (though they do have a water taxi ballet in summer, which seems something we'll need to investigate at some point), but even in less-than-ideal weather - this is the Pacific Northwest in late autumn, after all, so rain is a certainty - the walk around the harbo(u)r to our destination was pleasant. Having been deeply impressed by their beer and food on a previous visit, we opted to stay at Spinnakers, Victoria's longest-serving (and, let's be honest, best) brewpub, in business since 1984. We were not disappointed by our room, which had ample space to allow our children to ignore us when they so desired, and breakfast is included as a perk of staying on-site. (In case you were wondering and/or feeling cynical, there’s no need for any sort of 'full disclosure' here - no freebies, just a great experience). And the breakfasts are amazing - fantastic scones, a variety of great entrees and a beautiful water view; it's actually rather a good thing the water taxis weren't running, because we needed the longer walk downtown to work off the generous portions of wonderful food.
And, of course, there's the beer. While everything was lovely, I especially enjoyed the cask bitter; our friendly, if bemused, waitress had to come ask me if I was really fondly stroking my pint. I had to explain that a great bitter is a rarity for me, so yes, it's all true. Also of special note was the Firefighter Thirst Extinguisher Session Ale - we didn't realize we had arrived on the anniversary of a large fire a year ago, but everything looked perfect - there was no sign of damage any more, and the 'thank you' beer was really quite wonderful. It could be argued that there isn't the range of 'adventurous' beers we are used to on this side of the border, but I certainly did not feel their absence.
We also did the usual tourist-y things - a tour of Parliament, a return visit to their excellent historical ghost walk (those not with the smaller member of the family also enjoyed the Chinatown history excursion), went to Munro's to buy far too many books - and then we started on the tea. We didn't make it to Murchie's last time, but visited a few times on this trip; while I'm sure the fancy high tea at the Empress is lovely, it's likely not geared toward a 3-year-old's attention span, so we opted for basic tea and cakes. I'm not sure if it's simply down to a sampling error, but on each visit it was full of transplanted Scots; it may be that Victoria is secretly more Scottish than Scotland, rather than more English than England. And a side note for people like me, who love good tea but can't have too much caffeine: Murchie's Decaf Afternoon Tea is actually good! Most decaf tea is, frankly, appalling, so this was a very welcome discovery, as was the fact that the local supermarkets stock most of the terrible British snacks and cereals I miss from living in Britain in the 1990s.
Finally, a bit of an unexpected recommendation: we had another great meal and some fine beers at the Irish Times Pub. I quite wrongly assumed it would be like every 'Irish' pub in North America - Guinness and Stella on tap, and some microwaved shepherd's pie - and while there was indeed Guinness, it was accompanied by simple, but well-prepared fresh food and a wide selection of local beers. I'm very tempted to go back again for their breakfast at some point in the future.
We've already made a list of galleries we'd like to spend more time in on a return visit; there is a wide selection of works by local First Nations artists we didn't have enough time to explore, we skipped over the major museums and gardens on this trip, and I didn't even mention the range of shoe stores that stock shoes actually made for walking - another rarity around these parts. Victoria's well-preserved (and thoughtfully re-used) older buildings are a draw, but even the new construction had me checking prices; I'd happily go back in any season.
I've been overthinking beer festivals lately; mulling over the idea of developing a taxonomy of beer events, then abandoning the idea as Not Useful. But some questions stick in my mind: when is a beer festival a 'festival' and when is it an 'event' (in the 'Facebook event' sense)? Is something the scale of Philly Beer Week too big to be a festival? Is Seattle Beer Week's Celebration of Women in Beer its own festival, nested within a larger one? Has something like GABF become too 'corporate' to be festive? Is our local progressive Oktoberfest* a festival? Or is the Cask Bitter Festival held by Machine House, one of my favorite local brewers, really too small to warrant the name? Can they 'take over' their own taps in a single-style tap takeover? I'd argue that their branding worked - there may have only been 4-5 beers featured in the 'festival,' but it certainly got me there.
It's odd to think that cask bitters are now so rare on the US beer nerd scene that they need to have a whole weekend dedicated to them; back when I began attending beer festivals in the late 1990s, bitters, brown ales and stouts were typical fare - now they are nearly as novel as this month's most popular resurrected-and-tweaked forgotten sour historical style, and they are probably not considered as 'accessible' as everyone's standard-offering 7% IPA. Indeed, most beer festivals I enjoy tend to be somewhat smaller in scale. I no doubt 'imprinted' to some extent on the first beer festival I attended more than once: namely, the Mountain View Small Brewers Festival. Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, in the heady days of the dot-com boom and bust in Silicon Valley, this pleasant annual event was largely a Local Festival for Local People. As I lived a short walk away in a terrible, expensive 1-bed apartment (and this was in a pre-Google Mountain View), it was doubly so for me. It was my first introduction to beers from Firestone Walker, Mendocino Brewing and Widmer Bros, long before they were even regional powerhouses, but I had a special fondness for Wizard Brewing, whose hand-carved, Tolkienesque tap handles were a crowd-pleaser to their nerd-dominated audience; we were people who knew our way around a D20 (though some of us were beard-free). The beers tended to be British-influenced, and anything 'sour' or 'wild' was almost certainly not so purposefully crafted, and such terms were entirely absent. Rogue and Sierra Nevada brought their IPAs, but they were something of an exception; especially bitter and/or hoppy beers were practically confrontational (at least according to Rogue's/Stone's marketing materials). But Michael Jackson himself recommended the festival every year, so it had to be good.
Festivals - at least, festivals I attended - began to get bigger, more expensive and slightly weirder in the early-to-mid 2000s; the event that evolved from The Book at the Cook at the UPenn Museum in Philadelphia became the Annual Michael Jackson Beer Tasting, with beers from Dogfish Head, Yards, Troegs and Victory (plus some international oddities), and the man himself in person. He was incredibly generous about signing books for tipsy, effusive fans (ahem), and happy to talk tasting notes and the history of the local and international scene. It was a unique chance to sample some of Dogfish Head's Ancient Ales before they were commercially available (though we got to do this at the brewpub in Rehoboth Beach not infrequently as well), and I've never been to a more wonderfully-appointed salon for a festival - being surrounded by ancient Chinese and Egyptian art is a far cry from tents in a field or booths in a convention center under flickering lights, though I cannot imagine the museum's insurers signing off on it now. This and similar local festivals seemed to be a chance for brewers to showcase their standard lineup - maybe bring a small keg of a one-off beer, or a special collaboration with another brewer at the festival, but in most cases, that was the exception; it seems quite the opposite now, when brewers seem to compete to bring their most oddball beer to each festival.
This is no doubt driven by drinkers, at least those polled during market research, who claim to seek novelty, and while novelty itself is no bad thing, it can become repetitive in its own way. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote, 'when everyone is somebody, then no-one's anybody,' and that rings true at some festivals now. If everyone has brought their 'tequila-barrel aged Mexican lager brewed with lime,' it's easy to skip those booths, but it can't be cheap for the brewers to continually churn out specialty beers for the huge number of festivals that now appear on the calendar. I had a candid chat with some of the higher-ups at Victory Brewing a few years ago - I was interviewing for a job I didn't get, though they were lovely about the whole process - and they were quite open about how Philly Beer Week was tough for their staff: locals wanted to see something special or otherwise hard-to-find, while those who were visiting for the express purpose of trying all the local beers wanted a mix of the standard line-up and a few of those 'white whales.' Getting that festival lineup wrong would be expensive for a larger, established brewery, but potentially ruinous for a smaller one. However, given that these are businesses, one assumes that there's a strategy involved with going to (or not) individual festivals, whether those are local or far-flung - if the intent is to keep it small and impress your existing base, make a weird one-off; if you are working toward your regional, national or even global reputation, bring a well-made flagship beer - it's entirely possible that your amazing mild or schwarzbier will seem exotic among the fruit-infused, barrel-aged novelty beers. There's probably a very dry business school case study in here somewhere, but I digress.
So, what do I really want from festivals now? I cannot speak highly enough of the recent Oregon Brewers Festival, which celebrated its 30th year when we attended this past summer; as a multi-day festival with no admission fee, family-friendly options for the kids and in easy walking distance of our Portland hotel (not to mention many of Portland's justifiably-lauded breweries), it was absolutely ideal, if still beardy. There wasn't the (usually self-induced) pressure of needing to try all ALL THE THINGS in the 2-3 hours of a pricey, one-day festival; it was pleasant to wander in, try 2-3 samples, then wander back out to see other sights. Having been to another 'kid-friendly' beer festival that was simply more trouble than it was worth (few activities, not enough food, hard to get to, questionable beer quality, etc.), I had relatively low expectations, but Portland has it figured out. I do still enjoy many of the adults-only events, but they need to have a very specific focus and/or attendees to get me to shell out my babysitting dollars.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention a 'beer festival' I came across when we were in the UK a few years ago; it was simply a series of rotating casks from a handful of specially-chosen breweries, highlighting the seasons - more or less just the normal offerings for this particular free house. No lines, no hype, no tickets, no tokens - just a beer you might not normally have, available with or without excellent food. The novelty factor was still there in that the beers were only available in limited quantities, but they were simply (mostly) excellent pale ales, bitters and stouts - old school. It would be too low-key to be considered a 'festival' by most American standards, but if this is the future of festivals, I, for one, welcome our laid-back, throwback beer overlords.
*For those whose reading of the world 'progressive' now defaults to the political, thanks to The Current State of the World, this is a literally progressive Oktoberfest - it moves from brewery to brewery over the course of the afternoon, accompanied by an oompah band. Specialty merchandise - t-shirts, hats, drinking boots - are part of the fun. Protip: beat the crowds by always staying one stop ahead!
Well, we did it - after over a year and a half of living in Seattle, we finally made it to Portland. I admit I had lowered my expectations somewhat - could the beer really be that good? As an old, jaded beer nerd (not to mention one who has been thoroughly spoiled by having lived within walking distance of Tired Hands), I'm used to finding things that I've heard mentioned in either hushed reverence or wild enthusiasm to actually fit somewhere between 'it's not bad' and 'did we really need another 12% barrel aged sour?' Or worse – 'does it have a high BeerAdvocate and/or Untappd rating simply because it's so alcoholic/hoppy/sour/hard to find as to be nearly undrinkable?' And the much-maligned Portlandia-is-real hipster food scene – surely it would be quite similar: lots of dishes that were perfectly nice, but probably little worth braving Amtrak for (or - spoiler alert - your replacement bus that is required when Amtrak is sidelined by a landslide). After all, Portland is much smaller than Seattle, and I've found Seattle's food and beer to be pleasant, though not nearly as good as what we had in Philly, and certainly nothing like our old Brooklyn stomping grounds, though that's always an unfair comparison.
I am quite happy to report that I was wrong: it really is that good, and you can get tasting flights of absolutely everything: beer, spirits, ice cream, tea - you name it - and we did. Portland breweries, bars and restaurants also seemed to be much more comfortable with well-behaved children than their Seattle counterparts; we only encountered one place that wouldn't let them in, and they were incredibly apologetic and said they are working on getting their license revised. Most of the places we visited, and I'll highlight a few standouts in a moment, welcomed them with toys and great real food in smaller portions (though if you are my tween, he really only wants a place to plug in his phone so he can stream 1990s television and ignore us while we eat, though he does appreciate the food). Here are a few places we will definitely want to try again the next time we visit:
Ex Novo Brewing
Something billing itself as 'the nation's first nonprofit brewery' sounds like a Portland clichÃ©, right? But absolutely everything about it - the welcome, the food, the beer, the fact that they donate their net profits to the local community and beyond - was fabulous. It was outstanding across the board: the kids had milkshakes of a quality I've not had in years (so good it stopped a travel-induced tantrum), I had possibly the best taco I've ever eaten, and we got bacon for the table. The beers were uniformly fantastic, from Cactus Wins the Lottery, a Berliner Weisse made with prickly pear cactus, to Where the Mild Things Are, a great - you guessed it - mild. I loved this place so much I started looking at local real estate prices.
Great Notion Brewing
This was on my 'try if in the neighborhood' list, rather than a must-do, but it was so good I had the 'what are the local house prices' reaction again. I admit I was a bit skeptical after my first glance at the menu; quite a few sour beers, and I've had so many mediocre sour beers of late – some clearly accidental, some just not nearly as good as their makers suggested. But thoughts of bad beer were banished quickly – the Key Lime Pie and Blueberry Muffin beers were both wonderful; tart and refreshing, nice fruit character, but never cloying or perfume-y as is so often the case. Juice, Jr. was a fabulous IPA and as with Ex Novo (with whom they also collaborated on Best Budz - not a hipster pot beer, as you might fear, but a successful New England-style IPA, as we are calling them now), the food and service were both great. There was a welcome toy box and even the children's menu was made with top-quality ingredients; I would be tempted to order off that menu for myself.
Deschutes has always reminded me of Victory, our previous local stalwart when we lived in Pennsylvania - they've been around much longer than most of the smaller (and often weirder, in both good and bad ways) breweries, and to some they sit in that awkward 'uncool' space between the upstarts and the mega-brewers, but both have continued to thrive by offering a consistently high-quality product line, as well as careful expansion and innovation. Their Portland brewpub offered a good range of interesting food and tasting flights that backed up their reputation. Everything was lovely, but the Altbierior Motive stood out as a new-to-me offering.
I'm not generally a huge ice cream fan, but it would have been churlish to go to Portland and not at least try Salt & Straw, even though it seems their frozen empire is slowing moving up and down this coast, and it was well worth the trip. We actually skipped the tasting flight simply because the line was long and this time the tween, rather than the toddler, was fussy, but we did swap around a few times to good effect. We returned to tasting flights when visiting the fine local distilleries, but my favorite non-beer sampling session came at Steven Smith Teamaker. Both of their locations are in nicely-restored buildings, and we very much enjoyed the beautifully-presented custom tasting flights, each complete with a card detailing the tea's origin and properties. We went home with a lot of tea.
Putting aside a few minor quibbles - one much-talked-of brewery that had excellent food but only 'meh' beers, a ghost/history tour of highly questionable historicity (not to mention the poorly-constructed ghost stories - there are formulas for this, people!) - Portland also impressed with its largely-thoughtful historic reuse. For a relatively young city by global standards, there is a large collection of older buildings and walkable neighborhoods that sit comfortably next to their new additions, providing a lot more character and visual interest than you get in much of Seattle. And, of course, there was Powell's Books - that certainly lived up to and exceeded expectations. My major disappointment in visiting Vancouver was the absence of a great independent bookstore (though, to be fair, the ghost tour was pretty good - yes, I judge cities by their bookstores and ghost tours), so Powell's, with their detailed categorization and (actual) curation, makes Portland a much more attractive destination for us bookish types; the transit and odd specialty shoe stores were also very much to my specifically-weird liking.
In short, we can't wait to go back - if someone could send a beer and taco truck from Portland to Seattle in the meantime, I'd be most grateful.