Seattle is a jewel of a city in the northwest corner of the United States. Which means that it&rsquos frequently cold, mostly wet and always far away. But if you can muster the energy to get there, it&rsquos a terrific place. Take my word for it. I&rsquove been a fan for almost twenty years.
I&rsquod been there for college conferences, back when the world was young and Kurt Cobain&rsquos passing was still recent enough that men in plaid shirts and ragged shorts knocked about the streets cultivating misery. I returned to welcome a new year there, amidst yacht rides on Puget Sound and midnight revelries in outdoor hot tubs, a pointer to how, while still chilly, the city maintained a temperate even keel due to the warming current that ran through the Pacific Ocean. I was in Canada&rsquos armpit in high winter that year and I didn&rsquot see a single fleck of snow. I remember curious open faces in bars and a pedestrian- and cycle-friendly city and a liberal forward-looking populace. The coffee was good and the micro-brewed beer available everywhere even better and the dominant aesthetic seemed charged with the flavours, sights and smells of the Pacific Rim. There was a youthful energy to the city that was infectious. So, sixteen years after my last visit, I jumped at the chance to go back.
Naturally, it snowed.
Seattle isn&rsquot used to snow, due to the aforementioned warm current. In fact, when it does snow, the city retreats with a baffled expression behind a rampart of freshly brewed coffee. This time, however, it snowed with such severity that the airport closed for the next two days after we landed. It was so cold that the snow turned to ice and then ice actually fell from the sky. It was so icy that trees, under the weight of the frozen precipitation, fell on electric lines and parts of the surrounding areas were plunged into darkness. For two days, a quarter of a million people had no electricity. It was so cold, in fact, that Seattle became like India.
Well, not quite. But you know.
The city of Microsoft and Boeing and Amazon and Starbucks ground, literally, to a halt. I didn&rsquot mind. What&rsquos a wet butt garnered from an involuntary slide down one of Seattle&rsquos plentiful hills, when measured against having a whole city to oneself Especially when it is in winter wonderland mode. Some of the streets still wore their Christmas and New Year&rsquos decorations. The effect, against the ice on the ground and the drifting snow, was magical.
Elsewhere in the market are crafts stores, cafés and buzzy eateries and men and women vending their goods from barrows. There are cherries from local Washington orchards, delicious cured salmon jerky, beers in dark holes with fabulous views, and enough local flavour to sate any tourist&rsquos palate. Yet the history of the place is, if anything, more interesting, and is in many ways a microcosm both of the Pacific Northwest and the United States itself. Seattle &mdash named for a Native American chief who apparently didn&rsquot want to be so honoured &mdash was a booming lumber town at the turn of the twentieth century. A few entrepreneurial souls had sewn up the wholesale vegetable trade and drove prices up as and when they chose. In the first decade of the new century, a few hardy traders showed up at Pike Place to sell their goods directly to the townsfolk, defying threats and physical violence. The market&rsquos been there, independence written into its charter, ever since, weathering fires, booms, busts and everything in between.
It&rsquos a lovely story, but if you dig a bit, skeletons do tumble out. The internment of Japanese American citizens during WWII cleared the Japanese vendors out of the market. To my admittedly impressionist eye, they don&rsquot seem to have returned in any major way (though Pike Place Fish is an exception). In a city turned so resolutely to its Pacific side, it seems a little odd. But in many other ways, Seattle is the model of the progressive American city.
The World&rsquos Fair of 1962 gave a new sense of purpose to the city, and its enduring symbol, the Space Needle. This Needle has fantastic views, a good &mdash though pricey &mdash restaurant, and apparently long lines in summer. The panoramas to be had would justify those waits, I think, as you can see for miles in any direction. Hold on to your hats when outside, though it gets windy. Since this is the 50th anniversary of that historic occasion, Seattle&rsquos getting gussied up. The Seattle Centre and the Space Needle are collaborating on a variety of events, including art shows, performances, food festivals and the like. But for even the casual visitor, the World&rsquos Fair has a significance beyond that of what you and the tots can expect this summer.
The lead-up to the fair of 1962 and the roughly coeval rise of the University of Washington as a first-class institution of learning led, in some accounts, to Seattle discovering itself as a centre of the knowledge economy to come. The city&rsquos main industrial driver before that had been Boeing, and the trials and triumphs of that aviation behemoth had been reflected in the fortunes of the city. Within two decades of the fair, Seattle entered a new phase with Microsoft and its tributary companies, and found itself invaded by that bearded new species, the tech professional.
A visit to the Microsoft campus in Bellevue isn&rsquot easy for a casual tourist, but if you make the effort, it&rsquos quite something. We visited both the &lsquohome&rsquo and &lsquooffice of the future&rsquo, purpose-designed and -built installations that point toward where these eggheaded folk think the human race is headed with the tech doodads at hand. Walls that function as screens, information on visitors to your home showing up on your phone, programs that monitor whether your mother&rsquos sleeping soundly fascinating to many people, if not to me. Well, that isn&rsquot completely true. I was rather taken with one functional view of a desktop of the future, where icons and all relevant information including mails are grouped by task, and not by program and file, as they are currently. I&rsquod love an operating system that so closely mirrors the way my actual desk in the real world is arranged. But, given the way my interests actually arrange myself, I was far more charged up by a visit to that other Seattle institution.
Yes. Boeing. Let the coders and their offspring queue up outside Microsoft. I like planes.
Boeing Field is home to the flight-testing of the 737 and houses the Museum of Flight. We got to visit the Mukilteo facility, which is home to the 747, 767, 777 and the new 787 Dreamliner assembly lines, and the Future of Flight museum. This enormous facility was at one time the single largest building in the world. It may not be, anymore. But it&rsquos big enough to see four 747s in, at one time. And that&rsquos only one line. A little further, you see 767s getting worked on. And then 777s. And then the new 787s. Under one roof.
It&rsquos not a shack. And there isn&rsquot a photo in the world that can do it justice.
When we were there, new planes already wearing the liveries of the airlines they&rsquore getting delivered to were undergoing final flight testing. Immense planes took off and landed on that gigantic white carpet as we watched. The snow drifted in, as did jet planes. If you&rsquove ever dreamt of wearing a pair of wings on your breast, you&rsquoll want to go here.
Back in the city, or more precisely, across the Sound from it, is Bainbridge Island. A short ferry ride away, this is the perfect place to &lsquoget away&rsquo to, if the big city&rsquos wearing you down. Winslow is the little town closest to where the ferry docks it&rsquos also the main drag of Bainbridge. Boat-mad Seattle types flock to the marina. Other activities include kayaking, cycling and scuba diving. Miles of walking and jogging and a blessed shortage of vehicular traffic make this a tranquil spot in winter as well. Winslow itself makes for a superb afternoon&rsquos wandering about. Restaurants that range from tony cafés to diners, independent bookstores and stores selling expensively tasteful stuff you really don&rsquot need think of it as a West Coast Cape Cod. Naturally, all this charm doesn&rsquot come cheap. But if you&rsquore looking for a romantic spot, Bainbridge Island has the rooms for you. On the way back to the city, the ferry will deliver some outstanding views of Seattle&rsquos legendary skyline.
But you won&rsquot just be sightseeing. Seattle&rsquos famous for its almost religious devotion to its local seafood-heavy, Pacific Rim-influenced cuisine. Ingredients are locally-sourced, meals are slow-cooked, even the wine is brought across from within Washington itself (there is a drier part of this state with actual seasons). The wine, well, it gets better the more you drink. The food, unreservedly, is superb. Crab cakes, scallops, fish of any sort and in any preparation the list goes on.
Additionally, the international, well-travelled and -heeled and generally well-educated populace of Seattle and its satellite towns means that you have a full range of dining options on offer, from dal to dim sum. An old friend and Singapore standby, Din Tai Fung dumpling house, salvaged our lunch hour one snowy day in Bellevue.
I&rsquom also relieved to report that the coffee and beer is still worth researching. Old friends like Full Sail and Red Hook are still being poured, while new acquaintances fizzed and bubbled around us. Starbucks is everywhere, but Seattle&rsquos fascination with the dark bean goes well beyond that multinational&rsquos cut-piece storefronts. And Seattle, even when the snow is still packed on the ground, knows how to party. Fans of the nightlife won&rsquot be disappointed here.
So, you see, there really isn&rsquot any excuse. There aren&rsquot too many places left like Seattle in the world, places with big-city pretensions but a cosy, &lsquowe&rsquore all neighbours&rsquo vibe. Go and take a look. It&rsquos worth it.
There are several one-stop flights between India and Seattle. You can fly Delhi-Seattle (via Dubai) for about Rs 60,000. See emirates.com.
Seattle is large by the standards of the US, and especially the Pacific Northwest, but to Indian eyes will seem extremely manageable. Most of the tourist areas of the city centre, from Pioneer Square to the waterfront to both scenic and scene-y Capitol Hill and Queen Anne Hill, can be covered on foot. Public transport isn&rsquot superb, regrettably. There is a lovely little monorail that was built for the World&rsquos Fair of 1962, which runs from downtown Seattle to the Seattle Centre. It&rsquos still in operation. Otherwise, there are buses. If you&rsquore travelling to, or are based in, the satellite cities like Bellevue or Everett, you&rsquoll need cabs, unless you&rsquore willing to change buses, etc. We used Shuttle Express (shuttleexpress.com). Our driver, Vladimir, was a knowledgeable and interesting guide. As the name suggests, they&rsquore also a good option for getting from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport &mdash Sea-Tac for short &mdash into town. The ferry to Bainbridge Island is a drive-on version cars are welcome. Just don&rsquot leave it on the boat (wsdot.com/ferries/scheduledefault.aspx).
Where to stay
Seattle&rsquos got the full range of hotel options, since it is a business as well as tourist destination. We stayed in the comfortable business-type Sheraton Seattle Hotel, which is right in downtown (from $129 sheraton.com/seattle). Check out visitseattle.org/visitors/stay for more places to rest your weary bones. The site is run by Seattle&rsquos Convention and Visitors Bureau, so they should know what they&rsquore talking about, and have access to the best deals. In Bainbridge, the Eagle Harbor Inn is pretty much on the water, and is highly recommended by those who know it as a romantic getaway (from $149 theeagleharborinn.com). Additionally, check out bainbridgelodging.com for more places.
Where to eat
Chef Tom Douglas is a Seattle institution, and we had to try his Dahlia Lounge. It&rsquos a solid, unpretentious restaurant. Unfortunately, we were there on a night when half their staff and most of their diners couldn&rsquot make it because of the weather, so they were, perhaps, a tad off their game. My short rib was delicious, though, and paired with a perfectly decent local wine. The crab cakes are famous, but weren&rsquot, that night, spectacular. The rest of the orders at the table were uniformly good (tomdouglas.com). The food at Sky City, the restaurant atop the Space Needle, was unexpectedly good. No, we didn&rsquot expect crap food it&rsquos just that novelty restaurants tend not to take cuisine seriously. But the food we were served at Sky City was amongst the best we tasted in Seattle (spaceneedle.com/restaurant). On Bainbridge Island, we had a super and very laidback brunch at Cafe Nola, which was further distinguished by the fact that the establishment had just regained its electricity before we came (cafenola.com). The Dungeness crab sliders &mdash mini crab burgers, essentially &mdash and butternut squash ravioli stood out, for me. The cocktails &mdash at brunch &mdash aren&rsquot half bad, either. Out in Bellevue, a chance look out of a cab led us to Din Tai Fung, a super dim sum place that many Indians will know from its Taipei and Singapore locations. The dumplings are just as good here (dintaifungusa.com).
What to buy
Our nicest trip was to Seattle Chocolates, a local chocolatier with a growing reputation. A trip here could include a factory tour. They make everything from milk chocolate to infused dark chocolates to truffles (the San Juan Sea Salt truffles are strange to the Indian palate, but quickly addictive). They pay a lot of attention to package design as well, so these treats make great gifts (seattlechocolates.com). Otherwise, Seattle has a range of stores, from locally-born mall staple Nordstrom to much-smaller speciality retailers in Pike Place Market. In the market, we enjoyed Chukar Cherries, which sells cherries from the company&rsquos own orchards in eastern Washington (chukar.com/stores). For fans of preserved seafood, Pike Place Fish is a great place to buy both smoked salmon and salmon jerky, its dried cousin (pikeplacefish.com). The gift shop that stood out for its range of quirky products was the Space Needle&rsquos. Naturally, it&rsquos called SpaceBase (spaceneedle.com/shopping).
Where to party
While the weather was against us, we still found places to have a good time. Across from the Aquarium is the Highway 99 Blues Club, where there&rsquos live music and the sort of atmosphere that makes you want to dance. This is Seattle, after all, so it&rsquos no roadhouse. But for good music in a warm setting, it&rsquos hard to beat (highway99blues.com). Just around the corner, across the way from Pike Place Market, is Seattle&rsquos own burlesque venue, Can Can Kitchen and Cabaret. If you&rsquore looking for sexy without sexist, the sort of place you can take your wife and watch almost naked ladies &mdash and some seriously hard-bodied gents &mdash this is it. It&rsquos an over-the-top, campy experience which, if you haven&rsquot seen it before, could be the highlight of your trip. The performers are super-friendly and will happily pose for photos with your group after the show (thecancan.com). Seattle&rsquos live music scene is famous around the world you&rsquore bound to catch great shows no matter what time of year you&rsquore there. In summer, the music will be practically everywhere.
In the city of Starbucks, seek out Caffe Appassionato. These guys seek to differentiate themselves by making the easiest to digest brews around, with very low acidity. I&rsquom not an authority, but these cafés smell great and serve wonderful coffee. Additionally, they have cool coffee factoids built into the décor (caffeappassionato.com). They also sell their blends and beans on the premises, which would make a nice gift.