I flew into Seattle at the end of December, the month statistically known to have about twenty days of rain or snow. From the air on a cloudless day, the sun was illuminating the silver bays and inlets-giving shape to the land and islands beyond.
Clearly visible were the Olympic Mountains to the west and the Cascades to the east. Adding to the drama, was Mt. Rainier, towering high above. The presence of nature was dramatic.
Coming closer, I could see the urban stage composed of a sprinkling of skyscrapers and the mountains becoming the backdrop of a somewhat surreal setting. With the geography setting the stage, the play is about a resourceful, entrepreneurial people. Seattleites are relaxed with a consciousness. Seattleites walk the walk.
It’s a laid back town — I mean city -– made up of many neighborhoods.
Some people know Seattle as the Emerald City because of the abundance of green space throughout, thanks to the Olmstead brothers (sons of the famous landscape architect Frederick Laws Olmstead who designed New York’s Central Park). Starting back in 1902, they designed and built 37 parks and playgrounds to secure and protect the land with water and mountain views.
These well-designed parks are still preserved. The sustainable theme started long ago and is ever-present. Seattle is a place where the people embrace the lifestyle of integrating nature and source into their daily existence and play an active role to respect and preserve it.
Outfitting at REI
I needed some cold weather gear so I headed to REI, (Recreational Equipment Inc), the 100,000 sq. ft. flagship store. Choices to explore the great outdoors were abundant. One wall displayed nearly 100 pairs of snowshoes.
A newsletter posted classes, like Women Snowshoe — Romp to Stomp. The link to nature goes beyond consumerism. REI is the largest consumer cooperative in the US. But there is a greater mission here too — an educational component to raise awareness to its citizens, businesses and government through education, advocacy and community.
What Prada is to New York, REI is to Seattle. Backpacks are the fashion statement. Bikes outnumber taxis. A sales person said, “There isn’t bad weather here — just bad choice of clothes.”
Although gray and often drizzly Seattle’s weather in winter is mostly mild. It doesn’t stop anyone from being out, especially today.
The sun was shining and a Seattleite with a big smile said, “I’m out getting my vitamin D and when the salmon start running, I’ll eat it three times a day.”
Equipped and overwhelmed, we headed to Woodinville, 17 miles northeast and about 30 minutes from downtown Seattle to the Sammamish River Valley known for its local wineries. Willows Lodge became our headquarters for the next few days. Upon arrival, there were dogs in the lobby, a roaring fire and a receptionist welcoming us with a glass of local wine.
Willows is a place that describes itself as a “Northwest Celebration of the Senses.” There’s a Native American presence — in the sculpture gardens and their art collection. Eagle Song wears the title of Director of Natural Beauty.
She says she grew up on salmon and cedar. We took a walking tour with her. “This is our house. We welcome you to walk in beauty.” The Willows Lodge pays attention to details and aims to please.
Dog Friendly Lodgings
Ruthie, the lodge dog, was comfortable wandering around. There are doggie beds and pet room service offering hungry Mongrel Steak (broiled beef strips with brown rice and carrots) and pup cakes made from oat flour, peanut butter, carob and yogurt. Healthier than many humans!
The Fireside Cellars is a cozy lounge off the lobby with flights of wine paired with local organic foods and live music. A spirited and genuine waitress made us feel right at home.
Barking Frog Restaurant, also on the property, is more formal but still rustic and relaxed. According to Native American storytellers, frogs are a sign of abundance.
Chef Bobby Moore highlights the abundance of local produce. Mushrooms grow well in the northwest climate and have a big presence on his menu — maitake, shiitake, enoki, king oysters and chanterelles.
If wine is a passion, there are over 70 wineries in the area with tasting rooms. The area has a range of varietals blending old world techniques with new world grapes. Chateau St. Michelle, the oldest winery in Washington State, is on a 100-acre estate and is known as a leader in sustainablility.
Chateau St Michelle has a partnership with the famous German vinter, Ernst Loosen, producing the award-winning Eroica Riesling named after Beethoven’s third symphony.
Smaller boutique wine makers like Hollywood Hill Vineyard are often family-owned wineries producing wines in an old world style with more fruit and less oak, made from locally grown organic fruit. My favorite was the Red Mountain Syrah that had flavors of blackberries and ripe plums with only 175 cases produced per year.
On a beautiful clear day, we connected with Evergreen Escapes. an active and educational sustainable travel company that promotes “voluntourism.” It is their hope that “visitors will have a transformational outdoor experience that inspires them to respect, revere and protect our planet from the rock face, to the orca, to the wine!”
Here was another affirmation of Northwest lifestyle.
Dan Salvadora, our guide from Evergreen Escapes took us snowshoeing in the Cascades to Snoqualmie Pass. We explored the white winter world on trails flanked with tall conifers and views of summits peeking through.
After plenty of fresh, crisp air and a two-hour climb, it was time to experience the Willows Lodge Spa. I tried the ancient healing technique Lomi Lomi that had waves of fluid stretches which seemed perfect after snowshoeing.
One guest remarked after her hot stone treatment that she was nearly moved to tears by her blissful state. “It felt like liquid fire releasing the tension in every muscle.”
A liveable City
Seattle’s park system is a public resource that makes Seattle one of the nation’s most livable cities. You don’t have to leave the city to get away from it all. Discovery Park is a 534-acre natural area park minutes from downtown overlooking Puget Sound with views of the Olympic mountain range, Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.
It is a sanctuary for wildlife and used as an outdoor classroom with over eight miles of trails. There are two miles of protected tidal beaches with cliffs and dunes, open meadowlands, forest groves and streams.
Seattle makes it easy to connect to nature with its extensive trail system. The Burke-Gilman Trail runs more than 18 miles through the city where it eventually intersects with the ten-mile Sammamish River Trail. The Locks to Lakes Corridor is a 27-mile trail that follows the abandoned Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway corridor. And there are many more.
In addition to trails and parks, Seattle has increased its green space with over seventy P-Patches — community garden plots for over 2,000 households using 23 acres.
It’s not a surprise that Seattle set a city record in 2006 by sending nearly fifty percent of its waste to recycling instead of to landfills and is still going strong. Each spring the city gives out two large bags of compost to anyone who wants it.
The farm to table movement
The Farm to Table Movement is huge here. Every restaurant I went to had menus predominantly featuring local, organic ingredients and a large selection of local wines. Our first lunch was at Mistral Kitchen, a chic industrial space with baskets of seasonal fruit at the entryway.
Chef Belickis cooks with apple wood for flavor on his wood fired oven. At 850 degrees a pizza cooked literally in one minute. Himachi Crudo was a still life in shades of rose and purple-watermelon radish, pomegranate and amaranth sprouts.
Bartender Andrew Bohrer seemed to be more of an alchemist than mixologist when he carved a 3” ice cube into a faceted diamond and wrapped it with one continuous peel of an entire orange that fit into a highball glass.
The restaurant Urbane was another organic, local experience. We started with Dry Fly Vodka made from regional grains and botanicals, followed by River Valley artisanal goat cheeses Silly Billy and Naughty Nelly. Everything on the menu was from within 250 miles. For dessert we tried Chef Gilmore’s creation, Douglas fir sorbet.
It was not surprising to find Theo’s Chocolate, the first organic and fair-trade chocolate company in the U.S. to make its home in Seattle. Theo’s tries to educate consumers about the social and environmental issues of cocoa and cocoa farmers. ”We will delight your palate, ignite your imagination and inspire you to think and act sustainably.” There are unusual flavors like fig, fennel and almond and tastes of at least twenty other kinds– plus a factory tour.
Ballard’s Sunday Farmer’s Market is one of the few outdoor, year-round markets. It’s a real slice of life with regional treasures like artisan cheeses, smoked sockeye salmon, wild mushrooms, lavender honey and Washington state apples, pink lady, honey crisp and Jazz, a blend of braeburn and gala with a “pear drop” flavor.
Hand-crafted soaps like rose and cedar were a feast to the eyes. People shopped and gathered around to listen to the sounds of a jam band and enjoy the good vibes.
The Edgewater Hotel, set on a pier with great water-view rooms, was home base in downtown Seattle. It’s claim to fame was when the Beatles stayed there in 1964 and posed for a photo fishing out the window of their room.
The cocktail menu plays on the Beatle history with drinks like Yellow Sub-martini and Strawberry Fields. The hotel restaurant, Six/Seven has local, creative food like Pen Cove mussels from the oldest shellfish farm in the country and Dungeness crab and shrimp cake with lobster lemongrass tomato jam.
Our trip would be incomplete without boarding the Washington State ferry to see Seattle from the water to get a sense of place. A 35-minute ride for $7.50 roundtrip took us out on Elliot Bay and gave us a closer look of the Olympics from that perspective. It’s the largest ferry transit system in the U.S. with over 25 million passengers and half of them commuters.
On a sunny day Seattleites rejoice. Rainier tops out, the mountains are out! The temperate city on the sound is hugged by snow peaked mountains and enveloped with sparkling water and more important, friendly folks who are themselves eco-friendly. Sunny in Seattle. I’m going back to kayak in the spring!
Author and photographer Shelley Rotner, shown with the Fremont Troll, wrote GoNOMAD’s top story of 2010, about visiting the native Americans on Martha’s Vineyard. She is an award-winning children’s book author of over thirty books. Dogs Don’t Brush Their Teeth! Was selected by Time Magazine as top ten Children’s Book of the year. Visit her website
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