Seattle: The spiritual home of pop culture

By Cathrin Schaer

It's funny really. We go to Europe to reconnect with what we consider to be our cultural inheritance - the ancient history, the Old Masters, the culinary arts, castles, chateaux and those fine, aged French wines.

So what, you may ask, should we go to the States for? The first Starbucks and coconut cream pie? The answer is: yesirree.

And before those who prefer their masters old and their wines fine start to scoff, consider this: Travelling is good for the soul, not just because it allows you to shop elsewhere but because it requires that you experience different cultures and broaden your mind.

So while we may go to Europe to connect with the roots of our own culture, we can go to the US to see the full flower of Western civilisation in bloom, in all its multi-hued, consumerist glory. And happily, an easy-to-navigate, medium-sized city like Seattle is a great place to start.

For one thing, there's music.

Grunge started here with bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but Seattle has moved on now and the closest you'll probably come to the thriving music scene that sparked a worldwide trend is at the Experience Music Project.

This cavernous building, with a monorail running through its bowels, looks a little like the Sydney Opera House would if it was smaller, mutated and went a funny colour.

Love it or hate it, the EPM was designed by renowned American architect Frank Gehry and the odd, shimmery cladding it's covered in glows at night and represents a purple haze, just like the song of the same name by Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native.

Happily, you will find that the EPM is more than enough for fans of rock 'n' roll and, indeed, fans of any kind of popular music at all.

Ray Charles started in Seattle, playing in one of the first of non-segregated clubs in the country and he also cut his first record here. There's also half a storey dedicated to Latin music in America - you can duck into a booth and hear Celia Cruz singing.

Te Papa, eat your heart out. The interactive features here - including hundreds of oral histories from musicians and a room full of instruments as well as a recording studio - need to be played, listened to, fiddled with and beat mixed together to be believed.

And then there's the coffee. Seattle locals make much of their coffee - all the touristy literature says the craze for espresso coffee in the US started here.

Seattle is the home of Starbucks. The first Starbucks sits in the middle of Pike Place and is a major tourist attraction.

To be honest though, there's not much to see at the first Starbucks - it looks a lot like ... a Starbucks.

The biggest difference is the Starbucks logo; it features a much more risque mermaid, her scaly legs spread, rather than the chaste creature who adorns Starbucks cups and cafes around the world today.

The Pike Place Markets, within which the first Starbucks sits, are something of a Seattle institution and it's possible to take a tour of them. Here, you will find locally made toffee, special tea blends and the most delicious Russian breads and cakes.

Diet or no, if there's one thing you have got to do in the US is try the customary dishes, the gourmet delights they have given the world - hot dogs, burgers and pumpkin pie. Deep-fried, highly processed and filled with additives - this low-rent cuisine is downright delicious.

Seattle also has quite a few micro-breweries and you can get one of the best cheeseburgers you've ever tasted with a nice beer at bargain prices.

A local showed me the way to what felt like a pretty authentic American-Mexican restaurant in Greenwood, which is near the University district.

At Gordito's Healthy Mexican Food, you put your order in at the counter, then collect it when called. Now spread out the fingers on both of your hands, put them together side by side and that's about the size of the burritos they serve here. I kid you not - they're gigantic, stuffed with cheese, avocado, rice and beans and are scrumptious.

Downtown Seattle is a good place to start and to stay but, if you like a bit of boutique shopping, you'll also want to check out the cosy, cool districts of Ballard and Fremont.

There, you can mingle with the hipsters in the designer clothing boutiques and shop at vintage stores, junk shops and music specialists. You can read all about this side of life - the rock gigs, plays and exhibitions - in Seattle's best listings magazine, the Stranger.

One recent university study, which looks at how many bookstores, newspaper subscriptions and university degrees a city has, found that Seattle was the second most literary city in the US.

And they have the highest number of bookstores per capita. Which is why, locals say, by touring the various independent book- sellers, you can get a real idea of the flavour of the various neighbourhoods.

If you don't have time to attend a reading at Queen Anne Books, where they support local authors, or seek out your favourite detective novels at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop or even to have a beer with your books at the Library Bistro and Bookstore Bar, then the one place you should still make time for is the legendary Elliott Bay Book Company.

Creaky wooden floors, exposed brick walls, loads of personal recommendations from the cool staff and shelves and shelves of reading matter are guaranteed to make your luggage even heavier.

Downstairs there's even an appropriately grungy coffee shop - founded in 1979, it is apparently Seattle's original bookstore cafe - serving organic food and coffee, where you can sit and read, and pretend you're starring in Sleepless In Seattle, all day long if you like.

While we were on the freeway back into central Seattle, the traffic slowed to a crawl. What was going on? It turned out to be a major game of American football between local team, the Seattle Seahawks, and some other rival from out of state.

The whole of downtown Seattle appeared to have come to a standstill. The main road around the gigantic stadium was thronged with wild men wearing blue scarves, the bars and pubs were packed and, in the carpark next to the stadium, the rugby heads, as they would be known here, were having "tailgate parties".

That is, they were setting up portable BBQs on their car boots and drinking beer - lots of it - out of chilly bins before the game began. The energy was awesome to behold.

Apparently, the same thing happens with ice hockey games here. And although tickets to football and ice hockey games are usually sold out weeks in advance, the casual traveller with a bit of spare cash could definitely still attend - there were ticket scalpers cycling up and down the road, yelling out their offers for tickets at what were probably outrageous prices.

No story about Seattle can be complete without a mention of the fact that Microsoft operates from here and also that Boeing, the aeroplane-maker, is a major landmark.

Seattle was very much affected by the boom as well as the bust. Both companies still operate a little way out of town and tech heads can go on a guided tour of the Boeing premises. Some of the blokes in our group did this and it is, by all accounts, extremely interesting.

For those who can't figure out how to work their mobile phones and prefer their technology light, there are other interesting options.

Firstly, there's the science-fiction museum housed in the bottom of the Experience Music Project.

This is the place to come if you want to see the life- size model of the robot from Lost In Space - the one who calls out "Danger, danger, Will Robinson", or a miniature of Star Trek's Enterprise space ship and Star Wars' Death Star as well as the green, sparkling dress worn by Farrah Fawcett-Majors in the 1976 sci-fi film, Logan's Run.

More seriously, you'll also see samples of science fiction from as far back as the 1950s. It's fascinating to see how various creative types imagined the future, and the year 2000, back then.

Then, finally, you might want to finish your day with a meal at Seattle's landmark, the Space Needle. This towering structure was built for the World Fair in 1962 and, although some parts of it were redecorated in 2000, a lot of it still seems adorably 60s.

In fact, the rotating restaurant at the top is a retro collector's paradise, with wood veneer tables, orange couches, orange lamps and a continuously moving vista of the whole city.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies into Vancouver, then you can travel by road (hire a car or a driver) or by connecting flight, down to Seattle and on to San Francisco, where you can pick up a flight home again.

What to do:

Tourist stops: Experience Music Project, Pike Place Market, The Space Needle, Boeing Flights.

Sports: The Seahawks, The Seattle Thunderbirds.

Neighbourhoods to visit: Ballard, Fremont.

Bookshops: Library Bistro.

Where to stay: Alexis Hotel.

Cathrin Schaer visited Seattle as guest of Air New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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