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Seattle Still Rocks

Despite recent setbacks, the city remains a hip urban playground, loaded with vibrant cultural attractions and surrounded by glorious natural scenery.

January 06, 2002|JAMES T. YENCKEL

SEATTLE — A city of youthful vigor, Seattle never fails to put a bounce in my step. Sure, the place has suffered hits: a magnitude 6.8 earthquake, the dot-com bust, the departure of Boeing aircraft, anti-globalization riots. But none of this--at least that I could detect--seems to have shaken its self-reliant spirit, perhaps a heritage of its not-so-distant pioneer past. I returned recently for a long weekend, and the mood seemed as upbeat and full of fun as ever.

I'm an urban dweller, and I love big cities. I keep coming back to Seattle for its unique blend of cultural riches and rugged outdoorsiness. As hip as any American metropolis, it reaps the good fortune of a near-wilderness setting, blessed by both a beautiful seascape and snow-tipped mountain ranges east and west. Gleaming skyscrapers soar above its busy streets, but the views from almost anywhere are so magnificent that I keep thinking I'm in a national park.

Its residents must feel the same way. Seattle's uniform, most days of the year, is the parka, the kind experienced hikers don for mountain treks. I wore mine, as did (or so it seemed) every other person I saw. Guidebook writers have called Seattle "a base camp for outdoor recreationists," a jumping-off place for sea and mountain adventures, which perhaps accounts for the prevailing attire. Note, too, that North Face, Eddie Bauer, REI and Patagonia all operate cavernous outdoor-wear marts here.

One city center shop called Coldwater Creek, at 1511 5th Ave., has managed to bring the outdoors in. Meandering across the floor from one end to the other is a rushing stream (covered by clear plastic to prevent customers from falling in). It bubbles up from below like a fresh spring, and at the end of its course it spills back through the floor, forming a splashing waterfall for shoppers on the basement level. It's a happy little boost--Mother Nature style--to anyone's mood.

I walk in a national park, so I walk in Seattle, a compact city that rewards those who explore on foot. Like San Francisco, the city is draped across high hills that here drop steeply down to the waterfront on Elliott Bay and Puget Sound beyond. On the far shore, the 7,000-foot peaks of the Olympic Mountains thrust above the clouds. In the forefront, ferries scurry in and out of the bay, and behind them oceangoing freighters rest at anchor.

The hills add challenge to any sightseeing outing. I tackled them as I would any mountain trail--slowly and steadily. The air here has a crispness to it, a mix of tangy sea and icy mountain, that encourages activity. Not too hot in the summer. Not too cold in the winter. (Snow is infrequent.) True, overcast days are common; the sky dripped part of every day of my October stay. Parka-clad, I ignored the drizzle like almost everyone else and continued walking.

My wife, Sandy, was sent here to moderate a panel of insurance executives reflecting on the terrorist events of Sept. 11. I was eager to keep her company on our first post-tragedy flight and to help her check out some of the innovative restaurants earning rave reviews in the food magazines to which she subscribes.

For four nights we dined exquisitely on Northwest-style seafood. Interestingly, despite the terrorism-caused drop-off in business and leisure traffic, each of the restaurants was packed. My favorite was Etta's Seafood, where decor, clientele and menu are contemporary. Sandy ordered the black sea bass, served with fingerling potatoes and a four-mushroom sauce ($25). I went for the baked ling cod on a bed of savoy cabbage and lentils ($21). For dessert we shared a slice of cranberry upside-down cake, made with newly harvested Washington state berries and topped with white chocolate ice cream and an orange sauce ($7).

I also was eager to see the dramatic new Frank Gehry-designed building housing the city's rock 'n' roll museum, which opened in June 2000 as the Experience Music Project. It celebrates rock icon Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native, and grunge, another local phenomenon. The museum, built by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, sprawls at the foot of the soaring Space Needle. When I asked for directions, a street vendor pointed toward the Needle and told me to look for "the big blue blob beneath." Uh-oh, somebody was not happy with Gehry's work. Would I be?

As I discovered on earlier trips, the city has become a center for fine handcrafts of all kinds--contemporary pieces by local artisans, traditional Northwest Native American woodcarvings and international folk art--displayed in a profusion of galleries. This is the sort of art that interests me most, so gallery gazing was high on my list of activities while Sandy attended her meetings.

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