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Soaking in Seattle

With a reputation as one of the most friendly – and rainy – cities in theUS and home to heritage markets, the world’s first Starbucks and the birthplace of grunge, there’s a whole sea of history and culture to absorbin Seattle, discovers Andrew Richardson

  • Seattle waterfront
    Seattle’s popular waterfront hosts many dining and shopping options. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Seattle waterfront
    Nirvana estalished itself as part of the Seattle grunge scene of the 1980s. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Seattle waterfront
    The Space Needle was the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River when it was completed in 1962. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Seattle waterfront
    Puget Sound is a deep water harbour that forms a natural boundary for Seattle. The Pioneer Building, right, isImage Credit: Supplied picture

The boy in Pike Place Market didn’t quite know what to make of the guy behind the fish stall.

“Stand there, buddy,” the man in oilskin overpants smiled, pointing to a spot in front of his stall. Looking awkward, the young boy shuffled his feet forward, glancing up for confirmation: “Here?”

The boy’s father nodded at the same time as the man. “Nothing to worry about,” he said, giving his son a reassuring pat on the head, before melting into the crowd.
 “You ready now, buddy?” the stallholder hollered and the boy swallowed nervously. Then, from behind the counter, the fisherman heaved up the biggest salmon that the boy had ever seen. It was a Copper River fish, vast in size, weighing around 15kg.
“Now hold your hands out,” said the guy. And without further ado, the salmon was hurled across the counter towards the boy. As it flew through the air its back arched and it flipped a somersault, mimicking the action it would have made were
it swimming upstream.

The startled boy seemed to wait for all eternity before clamping his arms tightly around the fish as it descended towards his chest. His fingers slipped and slid as they grappled with the creature before clutching it tight to his body. A roar of approval rose up among the crowd. “Whaoh, dude!” said an elderly man in the audience, as he slapped the boy on the back. “Now you’re fishing!”

The boy, covered in the fresh salty smell of the salmon, smiled before handing it back to the fish seller. It had been quite a morning.

Such are the customs of Pike Place Market, a historic open air shopping arena located in the heart of Seattle. People from around the world descend on its retail avenues to see its world-famous fishmongers throwing fish and selling the world’s freshest and most flavoursome lobster, scallops and other seafood. The market was launched in 1965 by entrepreneur John Yokoyama and has become one of America’s most iconic.
It was founded on a very basic principle – to promote food and drink from Seattle and its hinterlands, beneath the banner: Your Neighbourhood, Your Market.
That motto remains the thread that runs throughout all of the Pike Place Market stalls. Visitors can meet the guy who grows the vegetables or bakes the bread, talk
to the fisherman who caught the salmon, the man who pressed the cheese or chat to the lady who cooked the doughnuts, all against a buzzing backdrop of friendly chatter and buskers hammering out tunes.

Time for a coffee…

The market is beside the original Starbucks, which opened in 1971 and usually has a long queue of coffee addicts waiting outside for their caffeine fix. It’s become a tourist attraction in its own right, catering to people who want to see the giant corporation’s humble roots. The store retains its original look, to keep in with the design guidelines of the historic area, and troops of buskers and folk musicians vie for prime spots on the pavement, playing acoustic songs to the gathered throng. I visited Pike Place during a whirlwind tour of Seattle – a city that sits in most people’s minds alongside images of Tom Hanks in the 1993 blockbuster movie Sleepless in Seattle, which featured frequent shots of his character’s picturesque Seattle houseboat and rocketed the city onto the world’s cultural map.

Having flown into Seattle’s Tacoma International Airport I wasn’t surprised to be greeted by a downpour – located in the path of a weather pattern that brings in a lot of moisture from the Pacific Ocean, Seattle has more than its fair share of showers – but avoided a thorough soaking by hopping into a cab, which delivered me to the downtown Fairmont Olympic Hotel, a short walk from the fish market. “Bush used to stay here,” said my driver, in a thick Northwest Pacific drawl. “Not the young one, but his daddy, George W Bush snr... He said it was his favourite place in the whole o’the Northwest.”

The Fairmont Olympic was an absolute treat, delightfully elegant and richly deserving of its place on America’s National Register of Historic Places. A vast lobby serves as a busy hub for guests and there were all sorts of people coming and going: well-dressed couples posing for photographs, groups of people sitting down to enjoy afternoon tea and, later that evening, a cluster of men and ladies in cocktail dresses and dinner suits enjoying the resident pianist’s rendition of tunes from the Great American Songbook.
My room on an upper floor had exceptional views across the city. I could see many of Seattle’s piers jutting out into the water of Puget Sound, the deep-water harbour that forms one of Seattle’s natural boundaries, as well as the high-rise buildings that dominate the downtown business district.

Seattle is a surprisingly beautiful city where the inhabitants have the sort of easygoing attitude that can be found further south, in San Francisco. I’d sensibly planned ahead and booked a CityPASS, a good value booklet of tickets that gave me admission into the city’s best attractions. There were options to visit the Space Needle, Seattle Aquarium, Pacific Science Centre, EMP Museum, Woodland Park Zoo and Museum of Flight in addition to take a trip on the Argosy Cruises Harbor Tour.

The city proved easy to navigate and I walked from my hotel along the harbour, through the Olympic Sculpture Park, to the EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum. The Museum is housed in a futuristic building and pays homage to the city’s extraordinary musical heritage. During my visit there were collections belonging to the Jimi Hendrix Estate, including a number of his smashed guitars and the clothes he wore during his final gig at the Isle of Wight, UK.
Seattle was the birthplace of grunge – aka the ‘Seattle Sound’ – so there was an exceptional Nirvana collection, which told the band’s story through letters, set lists, video interviews, archive footage and more.

The Space Needle was located next door and I took the elevator to the top, to enjoy panoramic views across the city and over Puget Sound. The needle was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, during which more than 20,000 people per day made their way to the top. It stands at 184 metres and was built to withstand winds of up to 320 kilometres per hour and earthquakes of a magnitude of 9.1. Its observation deck stands at 160 metres and provides incredible views across the Downtown Seattle skyline, as well as the natural wonders of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains, Elliott Bay and surrounding islands.

The Space Needle was designed by two men, Edward E Carlson and John Graham Jr, who submitted ideas to the World Fair. It has become an iconic symbol of the city, standing out proudly on the skyline and being visited by millions upon millions
of tourists.

Wandering through downtown

I walked through the city’s downtown district, becoming irresistibly distracted by one of America’s most eclectic retail centres, before heading back to the harbour for Seattle Aquarium. The building houses an engaging array of exhibits and my particular favourite was a watery pen that held sea otters. I stopped off to watch the creatures feed, lying on their banks in the water, placing scallops on their chest – which served as an impromptu dining table – and seeming to smile through the feast.

There was also plenty of time to wander through Seattle’s downtown shopping area, which is packed with more than 1,000 retailers offering everything from high fashion to thrift store chic. At the edges of piers, craftsmen sold cigar box guitars, while there were countless food units offering easy eats for city folk and passers-by.

There was also time to board the Argosy Cruises for a Seattle Harbour tour, which took in such sites as the Grain Terminal, Seattle Centre, Coast Guard Pier and Pioneer Square – a fascinating area that dates back to 1852 when the first pioneers settled here and hosts a totem pole and bust of chief Seattle, the native American chief who is the namesake of the city.

As we cruised around the harbour, we spied families of seals, basking on the sterns of moored boats, fattened up on salmon. Unlike the boy at Pike Place market, they hadn’t had to catch theirs in front of a crowd.

Seattle has a reputation for being one of the world’s friendliest cities. With great food, welcoming inhabitants and amazing attractions, my visit to Seattle exceeded expectations.