Before going to Seattle, I had not given much consideration to visiting. It was the setting of Sleepless in Seattle, obviously, and, more recently, Fifty Shades of Grey, though that could hardly be considered a compelling reason to visit. I was aware of the sort of basic, cliched image of the place – a hub, close to Canada, home of Starbucks and Microsoft, a city on the water.
What I really had not expected, however, was the familiarity. Seattle is known as The Emerald City, and not because of its very substantial Irish community. It is verdant, temperate, prone to rain (we can hardly hold that against the place), and has a sort of mellow ambience that has a feel of Cork or Dublin, though on a much vaster scale. It isn’t so much that it looks like home. Rather, it feels like it. Seattle is the sort of city you can wander round alone without any sense of particular concern or heightened awareness.
As an Irish person, you amble through its streets almost with a sense of déjà vu. I half expect to run into someone I know. The new Aer Lingus route from Dublin direct to Seattle has opened this city up to Irish visitors, and given Irish people in Seattle a convenient means of visiting home. Though I have no pre-existing links to the city that would have prompted a visit, I quickly discover I have been missing out.
Now, I am sitting in Indi Chocolate, a chocolate maker at Pike Place Market. They sell a chocolate rosewater body cream that smells exactly like Fry's Turkish Delight (universally agreed to be the best Turkish delight; outside its country of origin anyway) and consequently takes significant self-control not to ingest despite the early hour. Indi chocolate is the starting point for the Pike Place Market Food Tour we are about to embark on with Savor Seattle Food Tours, though we won't eat chocolate till we return here later. The tour starts before 8am, the idea being that we'll essentially breakfast by eating our way around the market with the assistance of Patrick, our guide, who is very tall and assures us he knows where to get good donuts.
Obscene and delectable
The tour starts before the thousands of daily visitors rush into the market, so we get to experience it as it comes to life. Highlights of the food tour include Daily Dozen, a cash-only donut outlet started by two sisters in 1978, whose maple and bacon donut is both obscene and delectable, and Miss Café, where the Turkish pizza pitta base is fresh and crisp, the cheese meltingly savoury.
If you are venturing through the market without a guide, there are a few stops you won’t regret. Piroshky-Piroshky sells sumptuous hand-held Russian pies, and Beecher’s Cheese, which is famous for its cheeses produced in-house, is a must visit. You can easily lose a day in the vastness of the market, and it is entirely worth doing to see the huge variety of goods and the street performers, who regularly rotate spots through the day. The market, which is the only historic district in the US which earned the title by public vote, is cherished by the city, and you can see that as you navigate through it.
Set aside another day to visit three of the city’s best attractions, which are all within minutes of one another. The newly refurbished Space Needle, built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, still stands at 520ft tall, but the renovated observation deck now features tilting glass walls and a glass ceiling, and offers incomparable and unobstructed views of the city. Those who dislike heights, however, should probably remain downstairs in the gift shop, closer to earth.
A minute's walk away is Chihuly Garden and Glass, which is another Seattle site I initially underestimate, but in fact find tremendously beautiful and interesting. It is the artistic home of Dale Chihuly, the sculptor who is widely known for his innovative works of blown glass. The eight gallery spaces are transporting and astonishing by turns, with Chihuly's strange and evocative creations presented with various manipulations of lighting and dimension to produce an incredibly otherworldly effect.
The centrepiece of Chihuly Garden and Glass is the enormous glass conservatory, featuring a 100ft-long glass sculpture and surrounded by gardens in which glass and plants ebb and meld to create a unique and beautiful sensory experience. Even for those who are not usually drawn to galleries, this is an experience worth having, with the sculptures giving a strange impression of the alien, the nautical and the botanic. Some look more like strange beings sprung to life than glass sculptures, and on a dry day, the gardens are both alien and exquisite.
Museum of Pop Culture
You may visit MoPOP, Seattle's Frank Gehry-designed Museum of Pop Culture, located very near Chihuly Garden and Glass, for the current Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibition, or perhaps for the Nirvana or Jimi Hendrix exhibits, but I bolt straight to the Star Trek exhibit and no human being is going to get in my way. I take a selfie next to Patrick Stewart's captain's uniform without an iota of shame (Picard forever), stand next to a Borg for a while, and gleefully photograph the Gorn Captain. You may remember him as the T-rex lizard hybrid guy who William Shatner famously (and so, so badly) fought in the desert in one of the best-worst Star Trek episodes ever. A small hole in my heart, of which I have hitherto been unaware, heals upon seeing the Gorn Captain's silly sparkly eyes and stupid teeth. It is wonderful. If Star Trek isn't your thing, try the horror exhibit in the basement (where else?) for a selection of creepier objects you will recognise from film and TV.
From there, we take the monorail to Westlake, Seattle's retail core, where the shopping is impressively varied. I quickly lose an hour in Sephora. If you are travelling with children, hop on a Ride the Ducks of Seattle Tour, which is Seattle's version of Dublin's Viking Splash tour. You'll forgo a Viking helmet in favour of a quacking duck beak (they're deeply annoying in a way that children will adore). The tour involves useful information about Seattle, music, cheesy jokes and a boat ride around Lake Union.
If you have an urge to get out of the city, the highlight of our trip is a visit to San Juan Island. We take the seasonal San Juan Clipper from Seattle, which will get you to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island in 3½ hours. There is also the state ferry or the option of a 30-minute seaplane, which we'll take on the return journey and is extraordinary fun. We see some humpback whales from the air, but a visit to Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park, may allow you to glimpse orcas, which are common around this time of year and come in quite close to land in order to feed.
Packed with gems
Friday Harbor is packed with gems – Island Books, a secondhand bookshop located in what is essentially a house, is somewhere you could easily lose an hour. You will find everything in there from Gray's Anatomy to Solzhenitsyn. Dinner at McMillin's Restaurant at scenic Roche Harbour is a must, and one of the best meals of my life. An overnight stay at Lakedale Resort offers a scenic, leafy peacefulness I didn't even realise I needed.
Other worthy spots on the island are Pelindaba Lavender Farm, which sells everything from lavender ice cream and skincare to lavender dog biscuits, and San Juan Vineyards, which hosts wine tastings. If you have time, visit Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. To do San Juan well, reserve a weekend, and keep an eye out for its unique wildlife – black foxes and bald eagles are common. Though it is a detour from Seattle, it is a unique place richly worth a visit.
Aer Lingus operates four times a week non-stop from Dublin to Seattle. Fares from €219 each-way. For further information see aerlingus.com. For more on Seattle as a destination visit www.Seattle-WashingtonState.co.uk