Thursday, October 2, 2014

Seattle Stay

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when a man is tired of Seattle, he is tired of life.  Of course Johnson was referring to London’s rich artistic and intellectual life.  Seattle has its theatres and museums (not like London of course), but it has an outdoor life that is the city’s pulse, everything centered on its bays, sounds, rivers, and lakes.  So if you love water, boating, and enjoy eating at fine restaurants, buying the freshest produce, every imaginable kind of fish and magnificent bouquets of flowers at Pike’s Market and other grocery stores, this is the place to live. There is an idiosyncratic almost hippie vibe to the city, mixed with the high tech nature of its business focus.

Our goal during our brief five day visit was to see as much of Seattle as we could after our Alaska cruise.  We were able to enjoy the city in all its dimensions in such a short period as the couple who we met on our river cruise last year, Edna and Mark, said if we ever visit Seattle, call us. We did.  They are inveterate Seattlephiles. Younger than we, they are active outdoor people and showed us the Seattle that few tourists can see in such a short time, not to mention negotiating the nightmarish traffic of the city. 

We also did some of the obligatory “tourist stuff” on our own, sparing Edna and Mark the ignominy of it all, a visit to the top of the Space Needle, a ride on the 175 foot ferris wheel extending over Elliot Bay, and even, embarrassed to admit this, a Ride the Duck tour – on a refurbished WWII amphibious landing craft.  In our case, one made by Studebaker! (How many remember that distinctive, but long-gone automaker?)

To understand Seattle, one must know its waterways, Puget Sound leading to Elliot Bay to the west of the city, Lake Union leading to one set of locks to the Puget Sound at the north, and Lake Washington to the east. Waterfront is king in the city and one may view the city from all different waterfront angles, ferries constantly running to Bainbridge Island to Seattle’s west.  There are many distinct neighborhoods in Seattle, each with its own unique characteristics.   Edna and Mark took us for a tour of several, again, something a mere tourist could rarely see without a car.

One of those neighborhoods to the north is Ballard where the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks can be toured.  There are beautiful parks and gardens there as well and, a fish ladder so salmon and steelhead can go upstream to fresh water from the Puget Sound to spawn. We were visiting toward the end of the King Salmon season, but there was still some action and as it was a Sunday afternoon, there was lots of boat traffic returning to their fresh water ports.  (Mark was wearing the same turquoise shirt that Ann said looked great on him last year during the river cruise, and he had remembered, but when we stepped into the car that last Sunday morning in Seattle, Ann made the same observation.  No memory of saying it before, but least she’s consistent -- and observant!)

Our first and second days (and nights) after the cruise were mostly spent with them.  At night we had dinner, they making the choice of the first restaurant and we having the impudence of suggesting the restaurant for the second night.  I don’t think it’s possible to get a bad meal in Seattle.  Each and every place we ate -- from touristy spots to some of the better restaurants -- was outstanding.  The ubiquitous NE clam chowder which is on most menus and at least one of us regularly ordered, seemed to be one of those award-winning soups which tasted equally delicious from restaurant to restaurant leading to our speculation that there must be one central place where it is made in a huge vat and delivered fresh to all of Seattle’s restaurants:-).

Edna and Mark took us to Salty’s that first night, as much for the food, as for the exceptional view of the sunset reflecting off Seattle’s buildings across the Bay.  But we turned the tables on them the second night, visiting the same restaurant we ate at a week earlier on our way to Alaska, Crow.  As they do not live in the Queen Anne neighborhood where our hotel was, and they have plenty of fine restaurants in their own neighborhood, they were not familiar with Crow. 

We had raved about it to them, almost forced them to go, and then began to feel a little nervous – will it be as good as the build up?  Will they be disappointed (and we embarrassed?).  It was as good if not better than our first visit.  They’re going back.  Wish we could too, although we have some fine restaurants within a short distance of our home, including those on Palm Beach.  But it’s the ambiance too (it has a funky upscale warehouse feeling), and they keep their menu limited to only 5 or 6 dishes and then do them supremely well, which makes this restaurant distinctive.  If you ever have a chance to eat one meal in Seattle, eat at Crow!! (No, they don’t serve crow there :-). 

A special highlight was visiting the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum, the miraculous brainchild of the now internationally acclaimed artist Dale Chihuly.  He is from the Seattle area (Tacoma) so this houses some of his most significant works.  It opened in 2012, and it is absolutely breathtaking!  It is right at the base of the Space Needle and all of this was a few blocks from our hotel.  His pieces are outer-worldly in color and artistry and he created an outdoor garden (his first ever) to showcase many of his other glass pieces, these being heavier and thicker for outside display.  Each piece of glass inside the museum is hand cleaned every single day to remove any dust or dirt!  Amazing. 

We ate in the Museum Cafe where we had a delicious lunch (what else in Seattle, including the clam chowder!) and admired all of his collections of antique memorabilia, from Christmas ornaments to toy soldiers, from clocks to teapots, church keys, and accordions hanging from the ceiling. A surprise for me was to see his collection of Edward S. Curtis’ photogravures of the North American Indian, the same ones that I worked on in the New York Public library in the late 1960’s as the publishing firm I worked for in New York was reprinting his entire collection.  I was a Production Manager then, preparing the photogravures for offset printing, ordering the paper (I still remember -- 60# Warrens Patina paper, a high opacity, calendered, cream-color stock, so appropriate for those historic prints). Where did Chihuly have time to amass all these collections while creating such beautiful glass work?  One simply cannot describe it all and hopefully some of the photos do the talking.

Another day we rode the 1962 World's Fair monorail to Pike's market, marveled at all the produce, fish and exquisite flowers, the likes of which we had never seen before, rode on the Ferris Wheel, ate lunch on the water, took a 2 hour informative boat ride on Puget Sound, walked through the Seattle Aquarium and took photos in front of the original Starbucks.

And let's not forget the butterfly collection at the Science Museum where we also "sat for breakfast" (the museum's intention to demonstrate relativity).

The ride on the amphibious vehicle (Ride the Duck) was absolutely campy.  One could not help but get into the touristy nature of it, singing and calling out together at passersbys on the street who accustomed to this frivolity were gracious in their acknowledgement of us crazy people.  The Duck took us to idiosyncratic destinations, tours on the water of houseboats galore, not to mention the infamous Sleepless in Seattle houseboat which recently sold for $2 million.  The tour concludes with a rousing chorus of the Village People’s “Y-M-C-A,” and from my salad days I still remember the hand gestures and joined in the silliness.  Good to be silly in such a beautiful place and a perfect sunny day (the locals propagate the rumor that Seattle is 100% gloomy and rainy to keep the population down).
Also in the “campy camp” was a brief visit to Paul Allen’s homage to American Popular culture, the EMP Museum.  Strange to walk through a museum which simply recounts the music and pop “culture” of the 60’s and 70’s (mostly), with a particular focus on Jimi Hendrix memorabilia, years I vividly remember.  Now my memories are museum worthy.  There are so many exhibits to explore there, the most interesting one to me being a giant guitar sculpture consisting of more than 500 musical instruments.
We decided to leave Seattle a couple of days earlier than planned.  First, Mark and Edna took us everywhere!  And, from our centrally located hotel, we had accomplished all the touristy stuff and we had matters to attend to at home.  Also, American Airlines had changed our return flight three times, the last change departing Seattle at 6.00 AM, and we’d have to get up at 4.00 AM or earlier to make our flight.    Having arm wrestled with an American agent (couldn’t make the changes on line without ridiculous charges), we were able to get a 12.20 PM flight two days earlier, again through Dallas, making a connection with a 1.50 hour window, and then to West Palm Beach.

We arrived at the airport with enough time to get an early lunch, and then waited at the gate which had an on time departure.  We had already lined up for boarding when the agent at the desk (and I was standing right in front) announced that they just received word that Dallas was experimenting with a new air traffic system and they’ve delayed our flight to 3.00 PM (and therefore we would be unable to make our connection, visions of spending the night in Dallas) and even the 2.00 flight would leave before the 12.20.  Naturally there was pandemonium at the gate, people surging to speak to the agents. One person was screaming at the top of her lungs, “I want to speak to a supervisor!!!” Ha.

As I was right there, I formed a single line for the next available agent (there were two).  Meanwhile the surging, crazy mob pushed and formed two lines not even acknowledging my place. I was on the phone with an American Million Miler agent while waiting and she said they had no information on a delay and therefore couldn’t help.  Meanwhile I was arguing with people on both lines that I would be next at which point I heard the agent at the desk talking on her cell saying, “are you sure, we’re boarding immediately and departing at 12.37?”  I could see her grabbing the microphone to make the announcement so I left the line and got into the boarding line and indeed, the announcement was made.  Again the surging mobs.

The airlines have made everyone crazy, fighting for overhead bin space.  We had two small carry-ons, having checked our luggage, but many people were carrying not one but two pieces of luggage, the maximum size for the overheads.  It’s almost rendering air travel impossible (for me at least) unless we pay up for first class. As the Sunday New York Times noted in “A Recipe for Air Rage” – “pack passengers tightly, add the stress and fatigue of travel, stir well and stand back!”
Not the end of the saga though.  Because of the late departure (later than 12.37) and given the size of the Dallas airport, our connection might be in jeopardy.  The pilot said he’d try to make up time.  He could not.  Meanwhile, as we approached Dallas, an American hub, the long list of connection flights and gates was read out. We were arriving in terminal C and our flight was departing from A10 although we were told A9 when we checked our luggage tag, both a long ride on the Dallas terminal-connecting train.  But it seemed we’d have enough time.  We landed and began to approach our gate and the pilot announced another plane was still there and we’d have to wait about 15 minutes, which was about the margin of error I figured for safely making our connecting flight.  To the iPhone I went to check whether our departing plane was still on time.  It was.  But it also reported that the departure gate was A28, not A9 or A10 as announced (conjuring up scenes from the 1980 movie satire of air travel Airplane!).  I showed this to the flight attendant and asked what should we believe, their announcement, my luggage receipt, or what is on the American Air site on my phone?  She said the phone; they frequently get wrong information on the plane!  And she also advised that we hoof it to the gate as it is closer to the one we’re arriving at.  It would be faster than the connecting tram.

After 15 minutes we indeed got to the gate and began our trek.  Well, “close” in the Dallas airport has a different meaning than most places.  It was still a long haul but we found an attendant with an electric cart for disabled people, just waiting for business, and figured as older folk we qualified, and he was happy to take us.  It was further than we had imagined and we pulled up to the A28 (and I had verified the gate by checking the board before embarking on the trek), but the flight sign read Austin, TX!  Our driver inquired.  No, that was the last flight; they just hadn’t posted the soon-to-leave West Palm flight.  So all was well after all, but the needless anxiety.

We finally arrived home after midnight, tired, but thankful to Edna and Mark for sharing their time and love of amazing Seattle with us.