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Best of Catherine Poe

Happily Sleepless in Seattle

26 November 2000

Seattle is as much a state of mind as it is a destination. Just ask the folks who gave us Starbucks Coffee, Grunge Rock and Microsoft. I suspect there must be something in the marine mist that sweeps across Puget Sound that provides Seattle with its defiant character. Come what may, this city can handle it. Even when Seattle was no more than a logging chute for the Northwest woods, it was a gritty little Western town that always beat the odds.

Take the weather. True, everything is a lush green and the skiing, just an hour out of town, is great. And the sight of the original Twin Peaks, Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, emerging in snowy splendor from the clouds can make the heart skip a beat. Still, the weather is not ideal by any stretch of the imagination, unless you hanker after cold drizzle and damp days. What makes it all worthwhile is autumn, when days that can only be called splendiferous spread a canopy of blue across the hills of Seattle. Suddenly memories of rain vanish and a rush of adrenaline hits. Seattle is beautiful. We knew it all along.

While some tourists may head to New England for fall foliage, I suggest that you treat yourself and go West to see some of the most magnificent mountains this side of the Rockies and indulge yourself in the delights of a small, but cosmopolitan city.


Rome has the catacombs. Paris has the sewers. Seattle has the Underground. All three plunge the traveler into the bowels of their cities, but Seattle's Underground Tour is a unique descent under Pioneer Square and a literal step back onto the sidewalks of yesteryear. Most tourists to Washington state are usually looking up at the Space Needle looming over Seattle or at the Cascades hemming the city to the coast. But the Underground Tour directs our focus to the city deep beneath our feet.

In 1889, Seattle burned to the ground and the citizens decided to rebuild it in brick and fix their disastrous plumbing problem. Every time the tide came in, the toilets and sewers overflowed, causing a less-than-pleasant smell to permeate the city. The city fathers decided the solution was to elevate the streets at least 20 feet, but that left their new downtown a full one story beneath the street. The merchants were not deterred. Using good, old-fashioned American ingenuity, the stranded store owners built subterranean sidewalks complete with ladders for those shoppers who wished to climb out and shop across the street.

However by 1907, the inconvenience of such a system was faced realistically and the underground world was sealed off with the shops' second stories now becoming first floors and the main entrances. The subterranean stores were forgotten until a Seattle journalist rediscovered the lost world. Today guides lead the curious beneath the streets of Pioneer Square, along ghostly walks, past abandoned Victorian shops, and into a dilapidated theater or old bar. Their comic spiel on the early history of Seattle is as entertaining as their tour of the labyrinth beneath the streets, particularly their ribald description of how the invention of the indoor toilet was almost the ruin of early Seattle. This tour should definitely be your first stop if you want an overview (er, underview) of Seattle then and now.


When you emerge from the belly of Seattle, you are back in Pioneer Square, aptly named for the rugged little band of settlers who first homesteaded there in 1851. Back then Seattle was nothing but mud flats at the foot of a steep, wooded cliff. With plucky pioneer spirit, the first families proclaimed this daunting landscape would some day be the next New York. One of those hardy souls set up a logging mill at the bottom of the cliff on a pier jutting into the harbor and fed it raw timber down the steep incline, calling it Skid Road. The name stuck and only became synonymous with derelict life when Seattle fell on hard times. Today Skid Road is Yesler Way and the entire square has been restored to its Victorian glory of 1897, when the Klondike Gold Rush made Seattle the jumping off spot for prospectors. Nowadays the stores around the square no longer sell grub and gold pans, but books, art, and collectibles.

Your next stop has to be (or you've missed the essence of Seattle) Pike Place Market. Yes, you will find it clogged with tourists such as yourself, although fewer in the fall, but this is also where the locals come to shop. Fish markets, teeming with cod, halibut, snow crabs, and, of course, salmon, stand fin and gill next to antique boutiques overflowing with Victorian lace dresses and walnut armoires. I bought a Russian submarine officer's pea jacket while there. Where else would I stumble on such a find? Pike Place Market sprawls along several city blocks and over three levels, which will give your calves a work out while negotiating its maze. The best part is getting lost in the Market and then suddenly finding yourself on a walkway overlooking the harbor and looking West to the Pacific Rim.

The influence of the Orient is strong both in food, home decor, and even technology, but so is the presence of the Native American. From regional names to art museums to the casinos outside of Seattle, the Northwest Coastal Native American's effect is felt. The perfect place to understand this fusion of cultures is SAM, or the Seattle Art Museum, located between Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. And no visit to Seattle would be complete without a visit to the Museum of Flight at the birthplace of Boeing Aviation. In the Great Gallery, 20 planes "fly" in formation six stories above you; while on the ground floor you can examine the M/D-21 Blackbird and go aboard the first Presidential Jet, Air Force One.


Once you've seen the 56 planes hangared there, you may be itching to go aloft. While the less intrepid may prefer the revolving Space Needle, those with a taste for adventure, and more than a few bucks to blow, might opt for a seaplane to fly them up to Victoria, British Columbia or over to the San Juan Islands for an outing. You can soar from Puget Sound and land 45 minutes later on the bay of Friday Harbor, where you can shop, cycle, moped, fish, sail, or just watch the Orcas at play. See Kenmore Air for a real lift (800-543-9595). For those of you with less money and more time, then the Washington State Ferries out to the many islands provide the perfect trip.

One way to combine a land and sea tour is the Duck, a gleaming white amphibious landing craft, or DUKW, that will motor you around the Seattle sites before splashing into Lake Union for a water tour of Portage Bay and the houseboats. For $20, you will take a 9- minute excursion of Seattle that you won't soon forget. Check out their web site at

An unofficial tourist site that is not listed in any guides is the monstrosity that Bill Gates, Microsoft's boy genius, calls home. It can be glimpsed on the edge of Lake Washington as you cross the Floating Bridge on Route 520, heading East. Look right for what appears in the distance to be a great slab of rocks bunched up on the shore. That's his house. Only don't dawdle and gawk. Washingtonians have no patience with traffic jams caused by out-of-staters, especially if your license plate reads California.


A day in Seattle can work up a furious appetite. The problem isn't where to eat, because the choices are immense, but how to pick the best place. Having a brother there has made it a bit easier for me since locals always know that special place. I personally recommend Place Pigalle (206-624-1756) in the Pike Place Market, a marvelous bistro overlooking the harbor that has an uncommon touch with steamed mussels, Dungeness crab, and Alaskan scallops.

For around $30+ you can enjoy a superb dinner and a highly touted wine. Every tourist - so why shouldn't you - heads for the Space Needle (206-443-2100), not so much for the food, which is okay, but for the 360-degree view from the revolving restaurant 500 feet above the city. Go for a drink at sunset or brunch and you won't mind the food while you feast on the spectacular views of Puget Sound, the Twin Peaks, and surrounding Seattle.

After pounding the pavement and trudging the steep hills of Seattle, you may be aching for a warm bath and cool sheets. Again Seattle is a tourist Mecca, so the choices are wide and varied. Want to stay on a houseboat like Tom Hanks? Then call Pacific Reservation Service (800-684-2932) and they will match you with the bed of your dreams from an apartment to a sailboat. For those of you who are more traditional, nothing beats that old standby, Comfort Inns and Suites (206-282-2600). There's one close to the Seattle Center, Space Needle, and the Key Arena, and it boasts a free breakfast buffet and microwaves and fridges in the rooms, ranging from $89 to $189 for a suite. The cheapest sleeps I could find are at the Moore Hotel (800-421-5508) near the Market and the waterfront with rates as low as $44 to $60 a night.

If your sense of adventure is not complete unless you spend some time at a gaming table, then there are two casinos located just outside of Seattle.

The Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn, 20 miles south of Seattle, runs a 20-hour floor of blackjack, craps, roulette, and pull tabs as well as Keno, Poker, and off-track betting. It has one restaurant and serves liquor.

Tulalip Casino, 30 miles north of Seattle in Marysville, is also a 20-hour house, offering the same range of tables as Muckleshoot. There is one restaurant on the premises and liquor is served. For some, bingo is an added attraction, as is the Tulalip Best Western Inn across the street.

When you finally do leave Seattle, you will realize that you have only just begun to explore the area. To head outside only a few miles will take you high into the Cascades or out to tulip country. That means you will have to schedule another trip back. One visit to Seattle is never enough.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.
Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.