Travelling around Seattle

It seems that everyone has his own impressions of Seattle, regardless of whether having visited Washington state’s largest city or not. Kurt Cobain, Bill Gates, Starbucks and Frasier are all closely associated with the city, along with its delicious seafood.

Situated between Puget Sound and Lake Washington, Seattle enjoys sea and freshwater bounty and a host of water sports. The 4.4-kilometre high glaciers topping Mount Rainier cast long shadows, offering a challenge to hikers and a permanent seismic threat to residents. On a sunny June day, though, Rainier looks like a fairytale mirage viewed from the top of the Space Needle. Built for the 1962 World Fair, the unapologetically Jetsons-like tower was the tallest structure in the city for many years before commercial buildings such as Columbia Center began towering over it. From its 160-metre high observation deck, the city’s water boundaries are clearly visible.

At nearby Experience Music Project (EMP), a Frank Gehry-designed building that is supposed to resemble a smashed guitar when viewed from above, I learned how Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain inspired an entire museum. It’s a lively, interactive place for grunge fans, as every aspect of homegrown Nirvana’s ascent to international stardom is documented through archival footage, memorabilia and recordings.

We stop for lunch at Collections Café, the gastronomic portion of Chihuly Garden and Glass museum. Glass artist Dale Chihuly’s personal collections are displayed in the café in shadow boxes, on shelves or suspended from the ceiling as mobiles. I loved his colourful transistor radios dating from the glory days of rock ’n’ roll but loved even more how the menu features contemporary twists on favourites such as smoked corn chowder with dungeness crab.

After lunch, we tour the adjacent glass museum. The Persian Ceiling was my favourite place; lay on the floor to get the full effect of being submerged under a brilliant sea of textures and light. The museum also contains an outdoor garden, a beautiful marriage of sculpture and nature. Perennials are newly planted every few weeks in accordance with the season, and some of the glass installations blended in so well that they could easily be mistaken for plants.

As Seattle has many distinctive neighbourhoods, we took a half-day tour with EverGreen Escapes to soak them in and learnt that Seattle was originally founded in 1851 by settlers from the American east coast who named it New York Alki in honour of the place where their schooner, Exact, landed. I found the most interesting part of the tour was a visit to the fish ladder at Hiram M. Chittendon Locks. To keep the salt water from Puget Sound from mixing with the fresh water from Lake Washington and its various tributaries, the locks allow vessels from kayaks to yachts easy passage. Designed by Chittendon in 1911, the fish ladder facilitates salmon returning to their freshwater origin to spawn. (I cheered on a lonely sockeye salmon trying to make its way up the ladder back home, certain that it emerge unscathed.)

No visit to Seattle would be complete without a stop at Pike Place Market. Savour Seattle is a fun, informative way to tour it, with about a dozen participating vendors letting groups taste their products. We sampled Seattle’s best clam chowder, sweet Washington cherries, spicy pepperoni and artisanal mac ’n’ cheese, and marvelled at the precision salmon tossing by entertaining employees at Pike Place Fish. Etta’s by local celebrity chef Tom Douglas (and named after his daughter Loretta) is a fine dining seafood establishment worth a try there.

Early the next day, we participated in EverGreen’s all-day ActiVino tour. In the morning, we enjoyed a hike through Sammamish River Valley and its majestic Snoqualmie Falls. In the afternoon, we headed into Woodinville Wine Country to taste local wines produced at JM Cellars, Lauren Ashton Cellars and Kestrel Vintners. While Washington state wine is experimental and young, it is also exciting to witness the birth of promising New World producers. We finished our trip with a beautiful sunset dinner cruise on the Royal Argosy. Watching the sun settle into the Pacific under a crystal clear sky is a postcard perfect memory capping a memorable Pacific Northwest trip.