Savouring summertime in Seattle

Last updated 05:15 15/04/2014
Seattle
Reuters

SEATTLE IN SUMMER: The Space Needle and Mount Rainier are pictured at dusk in Seattle.

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First tip: Don't come to Seattle right now.

The rainiest March on record just ended, and April started just as wet.

Seattle gets less rainfall overall than New York and Washington DC, as any local will tell you. But there's no use denying it: the rain takes longer to come down, and that means a lot of wet and dreary days.

Come back between late June and mid-September, when Rain City blooms into the Emerald City and green leaves, blue lakes and white-capped mountains shimmer through the long, dry, sunny days.

Protected by mountains on three sides and cooled by blasts of fresh ocean air, the capital of the Pacific Northwest is a summer haven for book readers, coffee-drinkers and outdoor adventurers who don't want to stray too far from a good dinner.

The metro region of 3.5 million and climbing was built on salmon, logs and outfitting Yukon Gold Rush prospectors, but it went on to launch more than its fair share of world changers, from Bill Boeing and Bill Gates to Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana.

The home of Macklemore, the Super Bowl champion Seahawks and freshly legal marijuana is riding high in 2014. Each of these appears to have loosened the locals' famous reserve, making this summer an ideal time to visit.

THE BASICS

Seattle's emblematic Space Needle, the flying saucer on legs a mile north of downtown, was built for the space-crazed 1962 World's Fair.

The old-fashionedly futuristic structure is not worth a postcard, but the view from the 520-foot (159-metre) high observation deck is. On a clear day the 360-degree panorama is the best way to take in Seattle's topography and marvel at the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges to the east and west, respectively, and the mammoth Mount Rainier to the south.

In the centre of town, Pike Place Market - built in 1907 and almost torn down in the 1960s - is the blueprint for the farmers markets springing up across the country. The noisy fish throwers cater chiefly to the dense packs of tourists, but the local produce is excellent, especially in summer as plums, cherries and apricots ripen.

A few minutes' walk down the steps from the market sits the Seattle Great Wheel, a smaller version of the London Eye, swooping over the Alaskan Way waterfront where cruise ships and local ferries chug by. Go at dusk on a clear summer evening - after 9 pm for most of June and July - and try not to weep at the orange-purple sunset behind the Olympic Mountains.

If you have kids or want to buck Seattle's famously indifferent welcome to strangers, try Ride the Ducks for an amphibious sightseeing tour set to a cheesy pop soundtrack and enforced hilarity. Just remember the locals will hate you.

If you have a spare day and a car, drive two hours south to see 14,410-foot (4,392-metres) high Mount Rainier up close, where glaciers descend all the way to touch meadows raging with wildflowers. Sunrise Visitor Centre at 6,400 feet is as high as the road goes, but only open July to early September in the brief window between snows.

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And don't forget to load up on outdoor gear, just in case it does rain, or you decide to scale Rainier, at the flagship REI store in South Lake Union with its own 65-foot (20-metre) indoor climbing wall.

ON THE WATERFRONT

Water defines Seattle, from the salty Puget Sound to the west and the fresh Lake Washington to the east, joined by two canals that meet in Lake Union by the city's centre.

The best way to get to know Seattle is to take a walk or ride a bike along one of these waterfronts. The shortest option, and closest to downtown, is to follow Alaskan Way north until you hit the Olympic Sculpture Park.

For a longer outing, the 9.9 km Cheshiahud Lake Union Loop takes a twisting route around the lake, past rows of picturesque houseboats, made famous in the film "Sleepless in Seattle", and the surreal Gas Works Park, a former gasification plant turned into a park with the perfect grassy knoll to view the city skyline and watch boats bob by.

The 43-km Burke-Gilman trail, created from a no longer used railway track, offers an even better introduction to the city for the dedicated hiker or cyclist, running along the west side of Lake Washington, through the University District, past Gas Works Park, and along the ship canal through the newly fashionable neighbourhoods of Fremont and Ballard to Golden Gardens, the closest thing Seattle has to a beach.

Locals light fires and watch the sun go down there. But remember this is not Florida and bring the fleece you just bought at REI, as it drops 10 degrees as soon as the sun is out of sight.

COFFEE KLATCH, FRESH FISH CATCH

Seattle punches above its weight in food and drink with a thriving local-source, make-it-yourself ethos.

The city deserves its reputation as a coffee Mecca, and not just because Seattle's King County is the world's most densely Starbucked region, including the original shop in Pike Place Market.

You are never more than a few minutes from an espresso stand or excellent cafe. Espresso Vivace, Victrola Coffee Roasters and Caffe Fiore each have elegant locations dotted around the city. Use your smartphone to find the nearest one to you.

Microbreweries are out of control in Seattle, and new ones seem to spring up almost every week in the northwest suburbs of Fremont and Ballard or the swiftly gentrifying Sodo and Georgetown neighbourhoods to the south.

Dozens are located within a few paces of the Burke-Gilman trail - which one wag renamed the Burp-Gilman - so you can put together a very refreshing ride or walk. Some of the best are: Fremont Brewing Co in Fremont, Hilliard's Beer in Ballard and Schooner Exact in Sodo.

For the main course there is salmon, oyster and crab. Seattle is still a working fishing port and tons of fresh catch come in every week.

Great seafood restaurants are sprinkled throughout the city but a few on the water make the occasion a spectacle. Ray's Boathouse sits next to Ballard Locks, where saltwater meets fresh. Sit on the back deck on a summer evening and you may see a seal or two gliding in the serene water as the sun fades.

Oysters and clams are easy to come by on the tourist strip along Alaskan Way, but connoisseurs head for Ballard's tiny but chic Walrus and Carpenter. Take a tour of the dozens of bars lining Ballard Avenue while you wait for the call. On Sundays, the same strip becomes one of the world's best farmers markets.

REACHING NIRVANA

When the sun goes down, head for Capitol Hill, the city's long-standing cultural and hedonistic lodestone. Gentrification means it's not as gay or bohemian as it once was, but the Pike/Pine corridor, as it's called, still pulsates with a seedy glamour on a long summer night.

Consult free local paper The Stranger for listings. There's almost always a good indie band on at Neumos or Barboza next-door on Pike.

Other music venues to check out are The Crocodile in Belltown, where Nirvana exploded onto the mainstream in the early 1990s and the Tractor Tavern in Ballard, which specializes in lesser-known, blues and country-oriented acts.

If you want quiet, The Stranger holds a Silent-Reading Party every first Wednesday of the month at the Sorrento Hotel in First Hill, a uniquely surreal and Seattle event.

THE TECH TOUR

The story of Seattle's growth from a rough-and-tumble logging town to one of the world's tech hubs starts at the city's birthplace in Pioneer Square - site of the original "Skid Row" - a mile south of downtown.

Bill Speidel's Seattle Underground Tour threads its way through the passages and tunnels created when the timber-mill town rebuilt itself one story higher up after the great fire of 1889.

Seattle's modern-day story takes off with William Boeing, who in 1916 turned his Lake Union boatyard into a seaplane factory. That building, called the "Red Barn," is now part of the Museum of Flight next to Boeing Field airport, 12.8 km south of Seattle.

Microsoft Corp is no longer the world's most valuable company, but Bill Gates is still the richest person and a global icon of the technology age. He and schoolfriend Paul Allen moved their tiny software start-up from Albuquerque to their hometown in 1979 and they've been pumping money into the city, directly and indirectly, ever since.

The story of the personal computer revolution, which Gates, Allen and Apple Inc's Steve Jobs did so much to create, is faithfully told at Allen's Living Computer Museum south of downtown, which has lovingly restored all manner of old computers, from a hulking IBM mainframe to early Apple Macs.

Today, Amazon.com is the fastest growing technology company in Seattle, if not the world. Take a walk through South Lake Union, a previously dingy quarter rebuilt in the last decade by Allen's investment vehicle, to see the young Amazonians hustle between buildings and the growing fleet of food trucks catering to them, as they design your future.

- Reuters

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