Home by the sea?
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“Seattle is like that popular girl in high school. The one who gets your vote for homecoming queen because she always smiles and says hello. But she doesn’t know your name and doesn’t care to. She doesn’t want to be your friend. She’s just being nice.”
I read these words in an article in the Seattle Times while doing some research in preparation for our holiday to the Pacific North West. Immediately the ‘oops’ light comes on in my head and that nagging doubt starts its wall of death ride, after all we have already had one highlight kicked into the long grass with the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant closing for refurbishment the week before we travel. Were we right in choosing this city as the starting point of our holiday, should we have chosen to start in Vancouver? Ah well it’s too late now it’s all booked, we will just have to make the best of it and do the tourist things, after all we are not expecting to make life long buddies while there.
Come the day we board our flight at Heathrow and take off into the blue yonder on the 9½ hour flight, all those previous doubts well and truly banished. Our flight path takes us out in clear skies over Central Greenland, a chance to see some snow and ice in September, and central Canada to the Rockies where we encounter our first cloud and lose sight of the ground. The cloud stays with us until we land, confirming one of the ‘truths’ about Seattle, that it is not the sunshine capital of the world. We hope that for once the weather man is telling the truth and it will be better tomorrow.
As we break the cloud cover on our landing approach, I get the distinct impression that we are coming into land on an aircraft carrier on a rolling sea. The runway appears to be standing on the top of a cliff, then I realise that the surrounding undulating land has been built up to create an area large enough to so as not to submit the landing passengers to bouts of sea-sickness.
We catch the downtown shuttle bus to our hotel ($19 each), the people at the booking desk at the airport seem friendly and helpful, although an offer to show me the best map of the downtown area was not fulfilled. We enter the city through the docks area passing the stadiums of the Seattle Seahawks football and the Seattle Mariners baseball teams. Arriving at our destination, The Fairmont Olympic on University. The first thing we notice about University Street is that how undulating it is and immediately reminds you of a small-scale San Francisco, all you needed were the trolley cars and Steve McQueen in a green Mustang to complete the picture.
The hotel staff seemed as pleased to see us and polite as any we have met previously. Locating our room which has been upgraded to a suite for some reason due to housekeeping issues (it is wise not to delve too deeply unless they change their minds). We quickly dump our cases in the room, brew up a coffee to try and ward off jet-lag and venture out on a preliminary scouting expedition. We toss a coin and set off uphill, then turn left onto 4th avenue, but it is not long before the need for sleep catches up and we retrace our steps and succumb to Morpheus’ gentle persuasion and by 7 p.m. we are asleep. We’ll pay for this later.
We wake next morning bright and very early, as if we could be anything else, to a clear blue sky and we vow to take a little less notice of the weatherman while here. Hitting the streets, we head for the only place for the newly arrived tourist to start the day in Seattle, 1912 Pikes Place, the Starbucks where it all started. There is also an ulterior motive for going there, in that our local branch held out the promise of a complementary coffee if we brought back photographic evidence of our visit there. Arriving we place our order like any tourist who’s not sure, a skinny latte and a cappuccino, and a couple of tasty pastries. The staff are as polite and as helpful as needed as any you could meet. Looking around we see a building as you would expect it to be, exposed brick and beams, walls covered with old coffee sacks and loads of coffee based merchandise. Photos taken and coffee drunk we exit to continue our exploration of another big tourist draw, Pikes Place Market.
Pikes Place Market is a real labyrinth, originally a farmer’s market, but now host to much more: from the fish monger with his ‘Costermonger’ style patter and fish tossing spectacle; numerous fruit and veg stalls; craft and Native American art shops; cafes and a pub/brewery, all spread over 5 levels down to the waterfront. The one regret we carried away was that we were not able to sample the famous clam chowder at Pike Place Chowder, because the queue for the lunch time service stretched out of the door and round the block. As we were hungry we decided not to wait and vowed to try again tomorrow, which of course we forgot to do.
Our next port of call is the harbour five stories below to catch a harbour cruise boat leaving from pier 55. Heading two blocks down 1st Avenue we come to the Harbour Steps at the end of University St which lead down to waterfront and Western Ave. The steps have been constructed as not merely a means of traversing down to the waterfront, but also an architectural feature with three sets of lit water cascades, one at top (3 falls – 6 Cascades followed by 2 singles); one in middle of 2 falls and a single fall before the final flight onto Western Avenue
Make our way to pier 55 to catch the harbour cruise around Puget Sound, utilising the vouchers from our City Pass books. After a short wait we board and make for the top deck to be sure of the best views before the tour begins in the company of our narrator/crewman Lorenzo, who provided a running commentary spiced with anecdotes about landmarks we pass and creatures we see, particularly harbour seals sunning themselves on a ship at anchor in the harbour. At the tour’s conclusion we dock back at the pier and as the clouds were starting to gather we took the strategic decision to make haste to the nearby Aquarium thus using another of the tickets from our City Pass booklets and keeping dry in the process.
As with most aquariums around the world, the Seattle one reflects the local sea life, which in this case is of Puget Sound, so no sharks (the children will be disappointed). At the lower levels you can view the fish as they swim in what approximates to be their natural environment. As always this is a very therapeutic experience, made slightly surreal by the sight of rain drops falling on the water’s surface above. A fish’s eye view, you might say. The seals, however, seemed to be a different matter. Their habitat was a simple concrete tank and they appeared to be just continually swimming around as fast as they could, trying to outdo each other in what appeared to be a behaviour akin to trying to alleviate boredom by seeking an adrenalin rush. Not being an expert in such things, I may be completely wrong and have misread the situation, but what I saw did not give the impression of happy contented beings at one with their surroundings.
An hour or so later the rain stops and we begin to make our way back up to the city. This time aiming to use the Union Street steps. We pass under the Alaskan Way flyover and encounter a group of homeless resting under the cover of the road deck. They had probably answered the call to “Go west young man” and gone as far they could and were wondering what to do now. Were they also casualties of Seattle’s rumoured standoffishness, we will probably never know. Climbing the steps, which are not picturesque as the Harbour Steps, we reach Post Alley to the south of Pike Place and assess our plans for the remainder of the day, and of course I submit to the inevitable and head Macys on 3rd and Pine for shopping.
Early start on our last full day in Seattle so that we can get maximum benefit from today’s star attraction, The Space Needle. We have made a mission to visit as many observation towers as we can on our travels, especially if they have a revolving restaurant atop them. However, about three weeks before we left home we found out that the restaurant here would be closed during our visit as part of the Needle’s refurbishment, which caused some initial disappointment, and a possible excuse for a return visit to complete the set.
The only real way to travel to the Space Needle from downtown Seattle is to use the transport that was designed to service it, the Monorail. This starts from the 3rd floor station at the Westlake Centre, which is a little eerie as this part of the building is under refurbishment so we are the only signs of life, only walls of clear plastic sheeting through which vague outlines of tools and paint pots could be seen. The Monorail travels the short distance above 5th Avenue ending in the Seattle Centre at the base of the Space Needle, which is the site of the 1962 World’s Fair. It is quite refreshing to travel uninterrupted above the everyday folk and soon a certain feeling of superiority starts to creep in, and the odd thought wondering if Micky Mouse ever made it this far north, or whether George Jetson was at home.
At the Monorail station you are met by ‘Monorail Man (aka Trainus Prime) a very 60’s robot indeed, a refugee from the World’s Fair. On stepping out of the station you encounter the consequences of the Needle refurbishment, safety fencing strictly controlling the flow of visitors into the structure and somewhat spoiling any ground level photo opportunities. After being shepherded to the entrance and paying the fee, we walk up a circular ramp around the exterior of the tower, on which are displays with descriptions showing the construction of the tower to catch the elevator up 520 feet to the observation deck and the glorious views of the city, Puget Sound, Mt Rainier and the surrounding area it affords. From here you realise just how far from the Pacific Ocean Seattle is, with the imposing Olympic mountains barring the way. They are not however, large enough to block the strong, chilly wind sweeping down the Sound, which together with the overcast sky, prompt us to zip up the coat and brace ourselves. Cameras ready, the snapping begins.
Having done the obligatory circuit and awe filled staring, there is unanimous agreement to seek refuge back inside to try and force some warmth back into our bodies, it is here we meet an obstacle. Because the tower is under refurbishment, there are only rudimentary refreshments available at the observation deck level. So reluctantly the visit is curtailed and we speed back down to ground level and the inevitable gift shop, where some mementos are purchased, including what turned out to be a rather good bottle of wine which was finally opened on my birthday, some months later.
Next on the list is a visit to the Pacific Science Centre, a modernish complex with numerous interactive exhibits aimed at younger people to understand a wide area of topics: Animatronic dinosaurs; Science on the Sphere (presentations about the physical earth); a butterfly room; science hall with replica of a Gemini space capsule you can sit in (cramped and not a microchip in sight I might add) and an IMAX theatre which was showing a film called ‘The Last Reef’ and as usual had some gloriously colourful shots of coral reefs and the sea life that lives there and a doom laden narration of how these were endangered.
Walking back through the park to the Monorail station I come across a busker sitting on a footpath laying bare his soul on his acoustic guitar, no vocals just guitar played on his lap in the style of the late Jeff Healey and I must confess I was so impressed I slipped the required $10 into the case and picked up one of the CDs. It may have been overpriced, but hey I’m on holiday and expect to be fleeced occasionally. As a parting gift our ‘star’ gave me the briefest and barely perceptible acknowledgements and continues playing without missing a beat, which according to popular folklore makes him a Seattleite to the bone.
So early next morning, after three nights in Seattle, we make our way to peer 69 to catch the Victoria Clipper for the three-hour journey to Victoria on Vancouver Island to continue our holiday. The journey gave me plenty of time to reflect on out time in the city and to ponder where my opening statement sits with reality. Well, the people we met were certainly polite and at least superficially helpful enough to move us on our way. As to whether the Seattle people are slow to make friends with strangers, as the statement professes, we, as tourists, were not there long enough to truthfully find out. Looking back, I think that the polite efficiency we seemed to have experienced may have been coloured by finding the statement in the first place. Certainly, there was not the unbounded exuberance encountered in some parts, but whether the statement has any weight, is beyond the scope of any transitory tourist.
65 people found this review helpful
This review is solely based on the opinion of a Silver Travel Advisor member and not of Silver Travel Advisor Ltd.