Some Like It Hotter

While we Seattleites have been blessed with a mild winter and sunny spring weather, some like it even hotter. Just a 3 1/2 hour drive east, the Tri-Cities region is not only the warmest part of the state--it was 85 and sunny this past Saturday, some 15 degrees warmer than Seattle--but also one of the most fun to visit, thanks to an abundance of top-notch estate wineries with gracious tasting rooms, an assortment of funky casual eateries, and big skies and wide open spaces /great for cycling, paddling, fishing and generally soaking in that great desert sagebrush vibe so foreign to most of us cityfolk dwelling west of the Cascades.

Indeed, the Tri-Cities (Kennewick, Richland and Pasco) is a different world entirely. The lifeblood of the region is the mighty Columbia River. One of the best ways to explore this great stretch of the river is by kayak. Columbia Kayak Adventures, based right by the popular Howard Amon Park launch site in Richland, rents an assortment of different kayaks and also leads private and group paddling tours to different sections of the river. One popular trip is to McNary National Wildlife Refuge, which plays host to hundreds of species of resident and migratory wildlife, especially ducks, geese and even pelicans.

If you're new to paddling or just want to brush up on your technique, spend some quality time under the tutelage of Tony Jennings of Paddle On Kayaking, who will take you out on a slow-moving, out-of-the-way section of the river and coach you on the finer points of everything from stroke length to edging to eskimo rolling. Jennings' 3-hour Quick Start introductory class runs $65, while a full-day class for $110 really immerses new and intermediate paddlers into the nitty gritty of paddling. If you're lucky, Jennings might let you borrow one of the hand-crafted cedar kayaks he built in his garage.

Après-paddling, or perhaps instead, head for the wineries. Richland's Tulip Lane gives wine lovers the most bang for their tasting buck, as three top-notch, internationally recognized wineries--Barnard Griffin, Tagaris and Bookwalter--welcome visitors into their lovely tasting rooms and grounds year-round. Meanwhile, Red Mountain on the outskirts of town (nearer Seattle, great for a visit on the way back home) is known for its world class terroir, and several estate wineries have planted roots there accordingly. Terra Blanca spared no expense with its beautiful tasting room, kitchen and event facility (completed in 2006; open year-round daily 11-6), while outdoorsy wine lovers /can take a hike around the vineyard's extensive grounds with a wine education staffer on Fridays and Saturdays at 3 p.m., April-November.

If all that wine has made you hungry, head for Richland's Fat Olives, a family run business with an eclectic menu of "two-handed" sandwiches, Neopolitan-style pizzas and other savory delights,