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Around Western Washington State

A city of neighborhoods, thoroughly linked by the bus system (for which an all-day pass is $2.50, the same price as two single fares). Views of downtown from many spots in this hilly city.

Our hosts took us out to see the canal locks, where boats change altitude as they go between saltwater Elliott Bay and freshwater Lake Union. But forthe rest of our short stay, we got around just fine on the bus.

Staying in the Wallingford neighborhood: a pleasant community of ethnic restaurants, cafes (it's a city of thousands of cafes and espresso bars!), small boutiques, and small but pleasant 1910-era homes. As a family of foodies, our goal was Pike Place Public Market—a foodie paradise. One bus took us all the way to 5th and Pine Street downtown, passing the Space Needle/Music Experience/monorail/science museum complex about a mile north of the center.

From Pine, it's only a few short blocks to the waterfront. Pike Place is a massive old-style farmer's market, mixing indoor and outdoor courtyards. Fresh local produce (organic pluots, dried and fresh Rainier cherries, tiny champagne grapes, and much more), fancy cheeses, fresh fish, homemade jams and jellies and honeys all were allotted multiple booths. Ethnic take-out shops (in storefronts but open to the courtyard) line the east edge, many of the sampling a range of products. Olive oils, pepper jelly, and balsamic vinegars were especially easy to find samples; we tasted a 12-year-old cherry-aged balsamic that was the best vinegar I've ever tried. But at $45 a bottle, we reluctantly left it behind.

Lunch was a picnic at the little vest-pocket park at the market's north end, overlooking the harbor: pieroshki and a potato roll from the Estonian-owned Russian pieroshki shop, wonderful spaniopita from a Greek deli, excellent bread from one of the bread bakers, and almond croissants from a French bakery.

The market includes two legendary stores: the original Starbucks and the fish-throwing fishmongers described in the book Fish! and its sequel. There are also three small floors of mostly non-food hops downstairs, plus the adjacent Pike Hill Climb minimall and shops radiating out from the market in every direction. We walked south on 1st Street, where we encountered a very elegant Chinese tea shop, sampling such exotics as tea made with lichee or sticky rice. Next door was Lark in the Morning, a small but very busy music shop with a wide assortment of exotic and common instruments. Although it seems to specialize in Celtic harps, people were in there trying congas, brass, and other things. There were several instruments I didn't even recognize.

Continuing south, we walked several blocks to Pioneer Square, a very attractive neighborhood built on top of the original Downtown Seattle, buried after a fire in the 1880s. It's possible to take 90-minute guided tours of Underground Seattle—that original downtown, bordellos and all—from a shop at the north end of the square (get your tickets early if you don't want to wait a long time; we'd have had to wait almost two hours, so we skipped it).

South and east of Pioneer Square is the Amtrak station, and then Chinatown/International District. This turned out to be a surprisingly bland, warehousy neighborhood with a few Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and stores, but nothing really charismatic.

By this time, we needed a rest, so we took another long bus ride out to the University, a massive, sprawling campus, almost deserted as we rode through. A nice little shopping district goes up University Way from about 41st to 51st Streets and also along 45th all the way back into Wallingford, and this T-shaped district was actually a good deal more interesting than Chinatown. We saw Korean, Indonesian, numerous Thai including two vegetarian, Afghan, and many other cuisines—an of course, dozens of cafes. Prices were quite low here, too, especially along University Way. We chose one of those cafes, associated with an art movie theater in an old Victorian, at the corner of 50th and University, and enjoyed big steaming mugs of soy chai latte and hot chocolate.

Highlights on the Wallingford side included Tutta Buona Napoli, an enormous brick-oven pizzeria and ultra-fancy espresso specialist, busy late into the night (and amazingly fast on the pizza! Our pie was ready before my espresso drink!)...a chocolatier with wonderful truffles, a bakery with spectacular chocolate espresso shortbread cookies, and very reasonable prices—the list goes on and on.

Our last activity in Seattle was the Washington Park Arboretum, a beautiful park just south of the university. Where we had come across numerous tiny parks all over the city, this one, designed by a later generation of Olmsteads than did Central Park, stretches for a couple of miles—and is a very pretty place for a stroll.

Mt. Baker
Our next stop was Bellingham, where we stayed in the hip Fairhaven district along the waterfront, with its bookstore, café, activist groups—and a stunning beachfront walkway that goes over a mile along the harbor, much of it lined with blackberries. But Bellingham, for us, was more a place to stay than a place to see. The first day, we drove about an hour and a half to Mount Baker, whose snow-capped peak dominates the skyline from Seattle to Vancouver. From certain angles, it reminded me of the head of a bald eagle, with the lower, closer mountains as the wings.

We drove much of the way across the park, stopping for a very pleasant hike at Bagley Lake (felt more like hiking along a river). This easy-to-moderate moderate 1.5 mile hike afforded great view of Baker and some of its sister peaks from many points along the way. We also circled the "photo loop" walk around a large pond.

The next day, we headed north into Vancouver. I'd last been there in 1976, and oh how the city has changed! Most noticeably, there's now a major skyline, dominated by round towers in probably the 30-50 storey range, along the inner harbor. Unfortunately, much of the charm I remembered has been buried under these not-very-attractive structures—but from a distance, along the beaches heading southwest from the city centre (we're in Canada, here, so I'll use Canadian spelling), it does make for spectacular skyline views. And the growth phase is not over; cranes and construction projects are all over the place.

Unfortunately, the infrastructure hasn't kept pace. Traffic crawls into town on Highway 99, and it took us nearly an hour to get from the city line to downtown, and then another fifteen or twenty minutes to find a parking space, metered at a dollar every twenty minutes.

The other big change is the vastly increased cultural diversity, emphasizing Asian cultures. Apparently many Chinese from Hong Kong came here after Hong Kong was turned back to the Chinese, and Thais, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Koreans, and Japanese flocked here a well. So gone is the straight-laced, uptight, and mostly homogeneous city I had visited three decades ago.

The downtown area is dominated by high-end fashion shops; we didn't find much of interest. But we did eat an excellent and, for the neighborhood, reasonably priced Dim Sum lunch at the classy Shanghai Chinese Bistro, 1124 Alberni Street; in a city known for its Chinese restaurants, it's won awards—and it's a class act that combines elegant service and well-prepared food. Most decent-looking restaurants in this district were $18-$25 for a lunch entré! Our four dishes together (two Dim Sum appetizers and two entrees) only cost $28 and were adequate for the four of us.

After lunch, we'd had enough of downtown so we headed to the vast expanse of Stanley Park. We sent about an hour leisurely walking along the pond, stopping to watch seabirds and even raccoons as the mood struck—and saw only a tiny fraction of this vast and beautiful park, with many sections set up as habitat rather than the traditional British-style formal gardens I'd remembered.

Wanting to avoid the horrible traffic gong back out the main road, we followed the shore southwest, through vast expanses of beaches and the very beautiful university campus. Here, if we'd had more time, we could have explored the very inviting looking Anthropology Museum, Botanical Gardens, and other attractions. But it was already late afternoon and we had a date at 6 p.m. with our hosts. We also had to pass on the large Buddhist Temple complex, a bit south of the city at the Steveston Road exit in Richmond—but we did stop at one of the beaches to get our feet into West Coast salt water (Georgia Strait, not the Pacific) and admire the skyline. But we knew we had to allow significant time for the border crossing, which, sure enough, was backed up about 40 minutes.

Bow/Orcas Island
Our drive to our next hosts took us through a farm and marsh area to a lovely back-to-the land setting on 17 acres, with marshes, herons, views of mountains as far as Canada (about fifty miles north), and two delightful hosts, Mark and Nancy. This is one of the most peaceful and beautiful spots I've ever been in with only one other house even visible. Other than the road traffic and a smoke plume from a power plant many miles away, we could have stepped into another world.

Orcas Island
On our way into Bellingham earlier in the week, we'd stopped at a roadside stand to buy a pie as a gift for our host—and by amazing coincidence our friend from Orcas Island, whom we met in Mexico last winter and whose contact information we'd neglected to bring, was loading flats of berries into her truck. While we were close to Orcas, we were still on the mainland—and off the beaten track on a side road. And she had to stop back at her second-choice berry stand on her way back from picking up her mother at the airport, because her first choice was sold out. What are the chances?

Clearly, we were destined to visit, so we made plans to leave our car at the terminal and take the ferry over. And because we'd been told about the long waits, we showed up an hour early. In fact, the terminal was absolutely packed--but it was all for the earlier boat, to Friday Harbor. Our boat had only a few dozen passengers, and only used one of the two car decks—but Jean (our Orcas friend) and our Servas hosts both described waits of several hours when they've brought a vehicle along.

We only had about four hours on-island, in order to get the last good ferry back. Jean first brought us to the house she and her husband created out of an old industrial workshop, complete with garage bays: a high-ceilinged loft paradise that felt far more spacious than its 1000 square feet.

Then to the stores of East Sound, where we bought fixings for a nice picnic, and then to the top of Mount Constitution, the tallest point in the entire San Juan Islands (2400 feet), and toped by several storeys of observation tower. We picnicked at the bottom and enjoyed the view of the islands, then climbed the tower for an even more dramatic view (on a really clear day, you can see Vancouver, Mount Rainier, and Seattle; our view wasn't quite that expansive, but still very impressive. We finished our day with a lovely hike through the massive spruces, firs and cedars that surround the large lake, about halfway down the mountain.

Orcas, by the way, is not named for the killer whale, although they certainly can be found on the Pacific Northwest coast--but for a long ago king of Spain.

Bow to Packwood: Deception Pass, Rainier, St. Helens
We opted for the scenic route to Packwood (our base for exploring Mounts Rainier and St. Helens): through Anacortes and Whidby Island, across the ferry just south of Everett, and then following expressways through the eastern side of Metro Seattle for 30 or 40 miles before picking up smaller roads again.

Although it's been named one of the 100 best small art towns in America, we didn't see anything in Anacortes that induced us to stop. Yes, it had a few cute galleries and shops, but nothing that grabbed us enough to get out of the car.

But at Deception Pass--the bridge from the mainland to Whidby Island--it was a different story. Parking lots on both sides and in both directions hinted that there was something worth stopping for, and we found a network of trails going to beaches, a small summit, and just along the channel through some magnificent conifer forests. We spent a good hour hiking and taking pictures, and didn't begin to exhaust the possibilities. Odd name for a bridge, Deception Pass--so named because an early explorer was deceived into thinking Whidby is a peninsula, when it's really the second-largest island in the Continental 48 (after, I'm guessing, New York's Long Island).

The driving was easy and uncongested, and there was no backup on the ferry from the southern end of Whidby back to the mainland (though going the other way on a beautiful Friday afternoon, the line of cars waiting to get onto Whidby stretched for over a mile).

Seattle has two major north-south routes, and we chose the eastern route, 405, to beat the traffic we knew we'd face on construction-delayed I-5. Unfortunately, 405 was also pretty slow, and then when we got off onto a black road at Pullyalup, we got stuck in traffic related to one of the worst cases of overdevelopment I've ever seen. It took about forty minutes to crawl through a dense retail strip (heavily dominated by various national chains) of perhaps four miles. And do they really need two of several stores because the traffic is so bad? Yuck!

Finally, once we were south of Graham, it turned first into farmland and then into the mountain road we were expecting. It was all worth it when, along Forest Service Road 52, we caught a glimpse of Rainier in all its glory, fully visible top to bottom and bathed in the almost electric glow of the last rays of sun.

The next day, we got to explore Rainier, though the top was fogged in, Still, it was well worth it. And to our delighted surprise, most of the trails other than those starting at the Paradise visitors center (where the trail were jammed with hikers of all nationalities, with an especial preponderance of Chinese, Russians, Germans and Indians) were uncrowded, well-maintained, and beautiful, with high glacial peaks, beautiful lakes, amazing wildflowers. Two of my favorite hikes: the beautiful Twin Firs trail through old-growth conifer rainforest, with thick trees shooting straight up for hundreds of feet, and the short but intense trail from Reflection Lake (no reflections, today) to Far Away Rock--where we even caught a glimpse of a mother bear and two cubs, well down the mountain from us.

The next day we tried to go see Mount Saint Helens, but only made it as far as the Visitors Center, where a ranger told us, "you couldn't see the mountain today if you were hiking on it." Since it had already taken an hour and a half just to get that far, we saw no point in continuing--but we did view the exhibits, where I learned that many of the Cascades, including both Baker and Rainier, are in fact volcanoes with relatively recent activity, and that large earthquakes often accompany volcanic eruptions.

Olympia and the Rain Forest
Our final stop was Olympia, very small (pop. 42,514) even though it's the state capital. Driving around downtown I wondered if it had been the victim of major urban renewal or natural disaster; the whole town felt very new, especially the area near the farmers market, which looked to be not more than 20-30 years old. The downtown core was Deco-era, with the exception of a few older buildings including the grand former State Capital (a giant 1890s-era castle in the middle of town).

Turns out that there have been a series of earthquakes, most recently in 2001. Oh, that explains it.

The next day, we drove out to Quinault Rain Forest at Amanda Park, taking in the well-done interpretive trail on the south side of the lake (administered by Olympic National Forest $5) through old-growth conifer forests, and the fascinating, moss-laden Maple Glade trail on the north side (part of Olympic National Park, no fee), as well as a stroll along the lake shore at the campground.

I continue to be impressed by these old-growth rainforests, in both Alaska and Washington. They are so lush, the trees are so tall, majestic, and straight, towering above our heads. Much of the ecology of these forests is built on old fallen trees; new giant trees sprout right out of the old wood, which retains moisture and releases it slowly to the newer trees.

We all agreed that it was worth the trip from Olympia—and a high note to end our trip.

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