Photos by Dori Arrington
Seattle is a sophisticated urban oasis surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty.
It would be easy to reduce Seattle to cliches, but one would do so at the risk of overlooking the legitimate uniqueness that gave rise to the popular stereotypes. Before Starbucks and Amazon, even before Microsoft and Boeing, Seattle was a working town, made successful by fishing, lumber and the natural riches of the Pacific Northwest. If a city can have a personality, Seattle has an air of candor that comes from the grit and honest work that made it successful. Locals take their city’s celebrity status in stride, occasionally bristling at the attention, but mostly just going about their work.
Much of Seattle’s draw comes from its waterfront location on the Salish Sea, named for the indigenous Coast Salish peoples, who have inhabited the region for over 10,000 years. The inland sea encompasses Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the waters off of Vancouver, British Columbia. The Salish Sea is one of the world’s most biologically rich inland seas, with 37 species of mammals, 172 species of birds, 253 species of fish and more than 3,000 species of invertebrates. There are few bodies of water in the world with more natural beauty or ancient lore.
Set at the southern end of Puget Sound, the Emerald City is a prime gateway to this coastal oasis. Seattle’s inhabitants have always lived off of this sea, plying its waters to harvest the abundant seafood. They have also used the surrounding waters as a necessary source of transportation. One’s travels around the greater Seattle area would be quite limited without getting on a boat of some sort. Washington State has the country’s largest ferry system with 22 boats serving 20 terminals.
The area’s protected waters and scenic harbors make Seattle a great boating destination, but one that’s not particularly close to many other boating hot spots; more people will probably travel to Seattle to boat, than by boat, and there are ample reasons to join them. Counting its 400 islands, the Salish Sea has over 4,400 miles of shoreline, and a sea surface area of over 6,500 square miles. Nearby towns like Bainbridge Island, Poulsbo and Gig Harbor are worthy destinations, and those are just within Puget Sound. Add the San Juan Islands, Vancouver and the Inside Passage to Alaska and one could spend a lifetime boating the area and not see all of it.
Aside from its seaside location, Seattle has a long list of worthy attractions, like the Space Needle, Pike Place Market, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and Paul Allen’s MoPop museum, none of which should be missed on a visit. However, the true nature of Seattle is best appreciated in the neighborhoods, away from the spotlights and national coffee shop chains. Communities like Capitol Hill and Ballard are authentic places where locals live, work and play. Staying in one of these neighborhoods gives a visitor the best feel of the original Seattle. The Capitol Hill neighborhood could just as easily be called the “Capital of Cool,” and that’s saying a lot for a city that gave rise to Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. With local music, creative eateries and boutique shopping, it’s the kind of organic coolness that just happened. The Ballard neighborhood has a front row seat to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, providing views of the boats navigating the canal linking Puget Sound to Lake Union. During migration season, visitors can also watch the salmon pass through the fish ladder from an underwater viewing window.
For a city with a deserved reputation for inclement weather, Seattleites love the outdoors, and when the sun is out they’re out. Fortunately, early city planners commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York’s Central Park fame), to create a green belt running through the city. From 1903 to 1936, the city built 17 parks which are still enjoyed to this day. The existing Seattle Parks and Recreation system has been described as “one of the best-preserved Olmsted park systems in the country.”
Seattle stretches the limits of anyone’s list of adjectives, and while some may come close to it visually, none capture the feel of the city. It is one that must be experienced.