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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE: SEATTLE

Emerald City shore leave

It's all happening along the waterfront -- a sculpture park, the Aquarium and Pike Place Market. Best of all, it's near the cruise-ship terminal.

January 28, 2007|Eric Lucas | Special to The Times

Seattle — SURROUNDED by the West Coast's only inland sea and two snowcapped mountain ranges, Seattle has one of the most scenic settings in the United States. Along with its beauty, it offers visitors plenty of activities, indoor and outdoor. It's a good place to spend a day or more pre- or post-cruise.

Seattle rose to international prominence because of its waterfront; its location along Puget Sound is still the city's most prized facet.

A trek through downtown brings you to many attractions that reflect Seattle's salty character; put on good walking shoes and start along the waterfront. Only the most intensely dedicated and energetic travelers could accomplish most of what's discussed here -- but, hey, if you're going to lounge on a cruise ship for a week, maybe you need the exercise.

The Alaskan Way is a wonderful waterfront promenade with a glorious view of the Sound and the Olympic Mountains. Halfway along its mile-long arc is a plaque that marks the landing spot for the famous "Ton of Gold," the first shipment of gold from the Canadian Yukon in 1897. The plaque is just south of the Seattle Aquarium, which focuses on Puget Sound and has its own self-made salmon run. The Alaskan Way's northern end is the site of the new nine-acre Olympic Sculpture Park, which was to open this weekend.

From the waterfront, a short climb up the Harbor Steps leads to the Seattle Art Museum and its iconic statue, "Hammering Man," which pays homage to the city's industrial history, specifically its long association with the Boeing Co. The museum is expanding and is expected to reopen in May.

Four blocks uphill from the art museum is Pike Place Market, the soul of Seattle. Rachel, the bronze pig at Pike Street and Pike Place, is a popular photo op and a philanthropic piggybank into which visitors deposit about $10,000 a year. Dozens of vendors offer fresh seafood and Northwest produce. About a mile north of the market is Seattle Center and its Space Needle. The iconic Needle is better to look at than to visit; a ride up its open-glass elevator gives you a 360-degree view of Puget Sound when the weather's clear but costs $14. The center (www.seattlecenter.com) has several playhouses and concert halls, more active in winter.

A better way to see the sights -- including the best vantage of Seattle's cityscape itself -- is from the water. Washington State Ferries depart from lower downtown. The ride to Bainbridge Island and back costs $6.50, takes half an hour each way and serves up splendid scenery and the chance to see dolphins, seals and sea lions, boat traffic and even the occasional visiting whale.

In the late 19th century, high tides caused gravity-assisted flush toilets to erupt in Seattle's original downtown; that south-of-downtown historic district is now known as Pioneer Square. Small shops, galleries and cafes are anchored by the well-known Elliott Bay Book Co., the city's hot spot for author appearances (101 S. Main St.; [206] 624-6600, www.elliottbaybook.com).

Bill Speidel's Underground Tour offers a subterranean look at what once were some of downtown's roadways and street-level storefronts before the area was raised to keep the toilets under control (608 1st Ave.; [206] 682-4646, www.undergroundtour.com; $11). Half a mile farther south is Safeco Field, home of the Seattle Mariners (1250 1st Ave. S; [206] 622-4487, mariners.mlb.com; $8 to $60). Although the Mariners haven't done well in recent years, fans still flock to "The Safe" to watch Ichiro Suzuki and to enjoy the views of downtown and Elliott Bay. Seats with the best views are along the first-base side.

One essential attraction you can't reach on foot is the Ballard Locks, where visitors can watch salmon climb a fish ladder. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks -- their formal name, (206) 783-7059 -- lift marine traffic from the Sound to the freshwater complex of lakes and channels that lead to Lake Washington, Seattle's eastern boundary. Visitors ooh and ahh over million-dollar yachts and rusty, crusty Bering Sea crab boats; below ground, a viewing window peeks in on the half-million or more salmon that climb the locks' fish ladder each summer.

It's one of the best attractions short-term Seattle visitors can see, a quintessential slice of the city's character. The locks are historic, colorful and a genuine commercial facility. Admission is free. One-way taxi fare is about $15; tell the driver to take you to the southern entrance on Commodore Way in the Magnolia district. The famed Carl S. English Jr. Botanical Gardens on the northern side of the locks demonstrate the vast range of ornamentals adapted to Puget Sound, from palm trees to fuchsias.

Where to stay: the details

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