A fishy kind of theatre was underway in the Pacific Northwest. Dungeness Crabs, royalty amongst the crustacean species in the American West Coast, stared back at us with beady black eyes, their fiery orange claws beckoning us from carts. Freshly caught fish of all shapes and sizes glistened from the sidelines. Beneath placards announcing the arrival of the Copper River Salmon, rubber overall-clad fishmongers tossed robust, silvery fish at each other and chanted in tandem. A crowd gathered within minutes for the piscine entertainment.
The locale for the performance was Pike Place Market in downtown Seattle, a fabulous hunting ground for locavores. Armed with cups of iconic Original Starbucks coffee from the first store of the chain (some things have got to be scratched off the bucket list), my husband and I were witnessing the famous Pike Place phenomenon one early morning. The business model of the energetic fish-sellers has inspired case studies at universities, schools and even a book-documentary called FISH! Philosophy.
With its warren of hundreds of shops selling everything fresh from cherries to tea picked by monkeys somewhere in China, Pike Place is the very soul of Seattle.
We were caught in the midst of one of the worst heat waves the city had seen. Gasping for for chilled beer, we traipsed around the streets of its downtown area. Yet we carry a sizeable bag of memories — gaping at the Space Needle; tasting beers at microbreweries; contemplating whether or not to queue up for ‘handheld pies’ at Pike’s Russian bakery of Piroshky Piroshky. With our love for anything that is old world and atmospheric, we were caught up in the charming Pioneer Square of Seattle while a saxophonist serenaded us with jazz pieces to woo the soul.
A lovely way to get in touch with the history of Seattle is to set out on Bill Spiedel’s underground walking tour in downtown. We were transported to a time when Seattle did not have its modern-day icons of Microsoft, Nordstrom and Starbucks.
In those days, the news was all about the first settlers of Seattle. They were a certain Denny Party, a group of Americans who had arrived in 1851 at the westernmost Alki Point that juts out into the Sound. At that very place we sat and had some of the best fish and chips from a chippery, Spud Fish & Chips, along the waters of the Sound. Across us was a sweeping view of the Cascades.
Back in time, the Denny Party shifted base to Pioneer Square in 1852 and from there set in motion the plan to raise the city from its original mucky tide flats. A significant change in the fortunes of the city took place with the Great Fire of 1889 that destroyed Seattle’s central district, and subsequently ,the Yukon Gold Rush that brought in a host of gold-diggers. Women were shipped into Seattle to marry its bachelors and yes, Seattle had its share of powerful madams at the time, those who ruled the roost.
The eco-friendly, health-conscious and vibrant culture of the Pacific Northwest was introduced to us by my sister-in-law, her husband and two children during a month-long holiday in Washington State’s coastal city of Seattle. During which time I picked up most of the trivia about it from my 9-year-old nephew.
One afternoon we went on a cruise that hugged the shores of Lake Washington. This lake is lined with waterfront properties that belong to billionaires including Bill Gates who has a futuristic home here. But my attention was riveted by the towering presence that hangs over the city’s horizon – the heavily glaciated and almost ethereal Mount Rainier. The highest mountain of the Cascade ranges also happens to be an active volcano, and is Seattle’s beacon of beauty. I went with the intent of hiking the volcano’s many trails and hoped to get near a glacier or two but the ghastly heat had me do an about turn.
There we were sipping on Bloody Marys aboard the boat and cruising Lake Washington — keeping a lookout for those fantastical, futuristic home, some of which had funiculars connecting them to the shores of the lake.
What however is a must is watching the sun go down in a blaze of colours from the posh Sunset Hill quarter in downtown Seattle with its mansions.
The Pacific Northwest
Leaving life in the fast lane behind in downtown, we set off on long drives through the incredibly beautiful countryside of the Northwest. Evergreen stretches (from which Seattle gets its ‘Emerald City’ epithet) stretch for miles and miles while emerald rivers with Native American names, such as Skykomish and Sammamish, skirt the roads.
Not too far from the city, there are beautiful little villages and towns, such as Snoqualmie with its beautiful waterfalls, Edmonds and Snohomish, which has been dubbed the ‘antique capital of the Northwest’. The historic town was chock full of the prettiest antique shops, chatty owners and vintage dress shops that set my heart aflutter.
I also loved the cutesy, drive-in espresso booths. And really with the Seattle-ites’ coffee culture, it is unthinkable not to give in. If you are particular about milk, they offer a bunch of different options — from hemp, goat, soy, eggnog to almond and rice. And try beating this one: The largest mug serves almost a 1,000ml of coffee.
Then, the coffee jargon had to be taken in the stride too. Did I demand a ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ cappuccino? Would I want either of those really, I rallied? Absolutely, came the pert answer. A ‘wet’ drink, it turned out, has creamier milk. The ‘dry’ (frothier) drink stays insulated and hot longer. My coffee-craving genes were at an all-time high.
There were days when we took the ferry to 19th century logging towns such as Port Gamble. Time stands still there. We followed it up with an Olympic Peninsula Loop Drive that took us to Sequim (pronounced Skwim), a town at the base of the Olympic Mountains renowned for its lavender farms. Our senses were steeped in the fragrance of lavender — drinking chilled, lavender iced teas and having lavender ice cream. And we drove up high into the Olympic National Park where thick fog swirled about us and it was all so mystical and beautiful. Just like a holiday should be.