Washington: Five faces of Seattle

The monster concrete troll can be seen during a bike tour. Photo / Supplied
The monster concrete troll can be seen during a bike tour. Photo / Supplied

Seattle is a city of layers and each level offers unique sights and sounds.

From the top: "You do realise we're using 50s technology to go up a tower built in the 60s?" It's a slightly alarming thought as we rise 160m up the futuristic-looking Space Needle, but we reach the observation deck safely. Spread out below us is a city full of delights. I'm starting at the top in a tower that was built for the World's Fair in 1962 and is a familiar sight to fans of Grey's Anatomy.

It's still modern-looking and distinctive, standing separate from the cluster of skyscrapers in the CBD that gives Seattle some big-city pizazz but are put in their place by much grander nature on the edges. There's big, blue Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to the west, Mt Baker's volcanic peak to the north and, looming palely in the south, 4392m Mt Rainier. But something's missing: the Space Needle itself. The best place to see it is from Columbia Building's 73rd floor observation deck where the view is complete - and it costs only US$5 ($6.30).

From the water: Just as in Auckland, you need to get out on the water to see Seattle's best side, and the ferry to Bainbridge Island is easy and cheap, just US$6.90 return for the 35-minute trip. The island is relaxed, green and arty, but I'm heading straight back for a more hands-on boating experience. At Lake Union, Eric settles behind me in the kayak and we poke along the shore, nosing around the floating houses rocking there. We see the one from Sleepless in Seattle: it's neat and pretty, like most of its neighbours, though some look like a DIY challenge.

"You have to watch your loading if you have a big party in one of these," Eric says. We dawdle past the University of Washington - "U-dub" - and are overtaken by a fleet of student-powered skiffs racing past. We potter along to Lake Washington, where Bill Gates has a house, and turn then for home, back to the city with the low sun glinting off the skyscrapers.

From wheels: Though Seattle is known for its drizzle, on the open-top bus tour Brendan says he doesn't even own an umbrella, but today is sunny anyway and we cruise a circuit through the streets, gawping at extravagant modern buildings and stately historic ones, leafy cobbled squares and public art works.

At Olympic Park by the water, there's a stainless steel tree where I join a bike tour. We skim along a quiet cycleway, past pebbly beaches and busy parks. Over the bridge at Ballard are the no-nonsense big fishing boats from The Deadliest Catch, and the Hiram M. Chittenden locks where hulking chinook and coho salmon rest by the underwater viewing window while a sea lion lurks outside by the fish ladder. Further along in Fremont, under a motorway bridge a monster concrete troll clutches a life-size Volkswagen.

From inside: Starbucks started here, and in the original coffee bar at Pike Place they sell exclusive mugs as well as a sinful toffee mocha. Along at Pike Place Market are flying fish: when one is bought, it's thrown to the man at the scales while all the staff shout. There are quirky shops and a tarot reader. Buskers add music: one spins hula hoops while playing a guitar on his head.

Up by the Space Needle, the Science Fiction Museum and the Experience Music Project present popular culture, while near Pioneer Square there's real history at the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, an official National Park in a city building, complete with uniformed rangers.

From underneath: Beneath the city streets is another, older Seattle with a salacious history that Richard tells with relish. We follow him through dimly lit tunnels while he talks about sin, sex and sewers: Seattle "seamstresses" were less to do with hems and more about hims, we hear. In these tunnels, formed when the original streets were covered over, there were murders and muggings, drink and drugs, gambling and prostitution; as well as erupting toilets. "The number one problem was with number twos," says Richard, before explaining how inefficient new-fangled flushing toilets and surging high tides were a hazardous combination.

He talks for an hour and a half, and we're enthralled. Emerging into the sunshine, we're appalled: Seattle deserves much longer than the two days we've given it.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Fly Air New Zealand direct to Vancouver, then take the train to Seattle.

Make sure you have your ESTA visa waiver for the US before you leave.

Where to stay: Inn at the Market has character, is comfortable, and is in Pike Place.

Things to do The Underground Tour.

Biking and kayaking: See evergreenescapes.com.

Further information: See seattle.gov and experiencewa.com.

Pamela Wade visited Seattle as a guest of Washington State Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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