Seattle is like a friend who is somewhat surprised and completely over the moon when you choose to visit her. She is modest, she oozes quiet confidence and she’s a bit of a hipster.
By Franki Black
In fact, when you meet her you’ll be tempted to think that she sparked the global hipster movement. She delights you around every corner and soon you discover that she is, after all, your best friend.
This northwestern American city is famously known for its rainy winters. It is far from gloomy, however. The benefits of rain are in fact substantial: it encourages people to turn to creative outlets such as theatre, music, museums and markets. Seattle ticks all of these boxes and, to top it off, it has spectacular forest trails, waterfalls and a vast bay where you can spot passing pods of orcas. If you’re still not convinced, opt to visit in summer when its weather is said to be glorious.
Surprisingly, the city remains relatively undiscovered by tourists. It was only in the 1990’s that Seattle’s widespread underground music scene pushed the city into the limelight. The “grunge” movement, spearheaded by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, took off around the world and it all started here.
I landed at the airport late at night and met my taxi driver. He set the tone, “Seattle is by far the best city in America – you’re in for a treat.” I was ready to get active.
The next morning, I joined an orientation tour with Evergreen Escapes, a regional tour company that specialises in adventure tourism for small groups. Our starting point was Pioneer Square, the oldest part of the city. Face-brick buildings were covered in green ivy and streetlamps embellished with wrought-iron twirls. It felt like a time-warp. Shana, our guide, led the way down a flight of stairs. We entered an underground world centered around book stores, artisan workshops and coffee cafes. Large parts of Seattle are apparently built on the remains of an underground city that existed in the mid-1800s. Above ground, we continued to the Tlingit Indian Totem Pole, a tall wooden shaft that honours Native American culture in Washington State. “Throughout North America, Native American tribes use these totem poles to connect to the spiritual world,” explained Shana, as we looked up at painted faces of carved bears, monkeys and owls.
Our next stop was West Seattle, a popular suburb that is home to people like Eddie Vedder – lead singer of Pearl Jam. En-route, Shana pointed out the headquarters of Starbucks and impressive views of the harbour, one of the biggest and deepest ports in the west. Ships, containers and cranes were moving around like worker ants. The driver dropped us at a neighbourhood park for a walk through the forest. It was like something out of a fairy-tale. Giant, furry trees soared above me, dew drops shimmered from flowers and the sound of a woodpecker knocking on wood resonated throughout the forest.
My morning with Evergreen Escapes came to an end at West Seattle’s promenade with homemade muffins and freshly-brewed coffee. A vast bay, known to be a sailing and kayaking mecca in summer, stretched out in front of us like a sheet of navy-blue ice. I bid Shana and her team farewell and navigated my way to one of Seattle’s most popular attractions for locals and tourists.
Pike Place Market
The Pike Place Market is the thumping heart of Seattle. Locals say that it’s the glue that keeps the city together and if you ever find yourself in Seattle, you will naturally gravitate towards it. This vibrant market is the longest continuously-operated farmer’s market in the USA and it encapsulates Seattle’s enterprising spirit better than any other place. I joined a tour, offered by Savor Seattle, for a taste of the market’s best. All Savor Seattle employees have musical and theatrical backgrounds, and to my delight, our guide Bridget periodically broke into song.
“Who wants to catch a fish?” asked Bridget animatedly. We were standing in front of the Pike Place Fish Company and there were mounds of mussels, clams and silver fish on show. Confident mongers were trying to lure the crowds closer for a taste. A hesitant bride-to-be in our party was pushed forward by her friends to “catch the fish.” She steadied her feet and waited as a fishmonger threw a large, quivering Alaskan salmon from behind a counter, through metres of air into her hands.
We continued past rows of colourful tulips and vegetable stalls filled with purple artichokes, Fiddle Head Ferns and morel mushrooms. Guitar players, violinists and singers entertained throngs of people pouring into the market. In between all the action, we stopped at different stalls for tastes of clam chowder, dried fish, macaroni and cheese, and doughnuts. The tour ended near the market at a bubblegum-covered wall, known to be one of the world’s most unhygienic tourist attractions!
The EMP Museum
In 2000, Paul Allen’s (co-founder of Microsoft) love for rock music led him to open the EMP Museum, a space that focuses on all things pop-culture related. I hopped on a bus and made my way to what has to be one of the most eccentric buildings imaginable. Architect Frank O. Geyry designed the EMP Museum with the intention of portraying the evolving rock ‘n roll experience. The result is a multifaceted, futuristic building – made largely from aluminum and steel – that looks more like a silver-and-pink space station than a museum.
On the inside, I walked through a series of exhibitions of Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Jimi Hendrix, and myths and magic. Letters exchanged between Cobain and his bandmates, and Hendrix’s psychedelic outfits were some of the items on show. In the middle of the museum, I watched classic rock performances screened on an IMAX screen. A highlight was the interactive section where visitors can step into technology-driven booths and learn how to play the keys, drums and guitar. For aspiring singers, there is a mini recording studio and a stage, set in front of a pseudo audience.
The Space Needle
The EMP museum is situated within walking distance from the Pacific Science Centre, a glass sculpture exhibition, a children’s museum and the Space Needle – my next stop. Soaring above the city like a gigantic mushroom, this observation tower is the most prominent feature on Seattle’s skyline. Instead of walking up its 848 steps, I squeezed into an elevator and shot up to an elevation of 184 metres in a matter of seconds. At the top, I looked out over spectacular views of skyscrapers, faraway lakes and the Pacific.
A South African architect urged me, before I left for America, to visit the Seattle Central Library. He described it as one of the most revered buildings on earth. With a few hours spare, I plotted the library on a map and made my way there. It proved to be worth every step. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, its hard-edged exterior is made of glass and steel, whilst its interior is finished in woods and surfaces tinged in reds and butter yellows. Elevators and a four-floor spiral walkway lined with a bookshelf, led me to the 11th floor where generous rays of natural light flooded through large, angular glass panels. People were reading, studying and browsing. It felt more like a home than a public library. A few hours later, when I was sitting on a plane homeward-bound, I realized that Seattle enchanted me until the very end.
Make it Happen!
Where to Stay:
The Sheraton Hotel: Situated in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Sheraton Seattle Hotel is a contemporary urban retreat that offers state of the art facilities. Transformed by the expansion of the 25-story Union Street Tower, this stylish hotel is perfect for leisure and business travellers. Discover a vibrant destination with innovative hospitality and warm Seattle personality that will inspire you to play, relax, and connect in the Emerald City. www.sheratonseattle.com
Emerald City Trolley – Hop on/ Hop Off 1-pass city trolley: This downtown trolley connects you to attractions like the Seattle Centre, Space Needle, Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, Seattle Waterfront and Argosy Cruises. You can also connect to the Overlook & Locks Trolley that connects you to the Woodland Park Zoo, Ballard Locks and Lake Union. www.emeraldcitytrolley.com
Fly South African Airways: SAA operates two daily flights from South Africa to the United States as well as operating the only direct flight from Johannesburg to New York City on the Airbus A340-300.In addition to direct flights to New York, you can get daily SAA flights direct to Washington Dulles Airport from Johannesburg on the Airbus A340-600. This long haul flight has a brief stop in Dakar, Senegal. www.flysaa.com
Recommended American Airline: United Airlines, www.united.com
Top Local Event:
The Seattle True Independent Film Festival (hosted in May): STIFF was started ten years ago and since then it has delighted film enthusiasts with underground films. Over 100 short films are screened during the 8-day festival and attendees can also look forward to an exciting line-up of networking events. www.trueindependent.org
Local Tour Operator:
Evergreen Escapes is the ideal tour operator for adventure lovers. Each tour is led by expert naturalist guides and customised packages are available in and around Portland, Seattle, Northern California and British Columbia. www.evergreenescapes.com
Fast Fact: The Mexican Wave originated in Seattle.
Tip Box: Visit the Olympic Sculpture Park situated along Seattle seafront. Here you can see cutting-edge outdoor art.