Since we had come all the way up to this part of the world to see our friends, it seemed rude not to check out two of America’s more alternative and off-beat cities – Seattle & Portland.
For those interested, Seattle is a simple 4-hour bus ride from Vancouver (or a 2.5-3 hour drive), and Portland is another 4-hour bus ride from Seattle. When we were looking into these cities, we quickly realised that every night we would spend here was going to be the equivalent of staying 2-4 nights in Central America cost-wise, so we kept our visits pretty short. However, we didn’t feel like we missed a whole heap in our 5 day trip of the two cities (though we missed out on plenty in the surrounds e.g. national parks).
Seattle was our first stop, and we had booked in to the Green Tortoise Hostel , which had been given some great reviews. It was pretty easy to see why. This place is smack bang in the centre of things, with most points of interest in downtown-Seattle no more than a 30-minute walk away. Not only this, but ‘pay what-you-want’ tours operate daily, and they host a variety of activities, including movie nights, taco night, pub crawls and….wait for it….free beer. Yep, you read right, they just gave us free beer. And it was decent beer at that, treating us to a sample of the local microbrewery down the road (Pike Place Brewing). Anyway, if you head to Seattle, we can recommend staying here at an affordable price (less than $70 USD per night for 2 people).
Seattle prides itself on its quirky northwest charm, and for the most part, it shone through in some of the tourist attractions available. Pike Place Market was the big one, and is the oldest continually operating public market in the US. It has pretty much everything a good market should have; handicrafts, delicious food, fresh organic produce and seafood and a few quirky performers. One seafood vendor even combined performance with their product, and throw fish back and forth from the stalls to the weigh stations in the back, chanting as they do it. Needless to say, this attracts plenty of interest. There seemed to be a ‘Big Three’ in terms of food and drink at the market – the ‘Original’ Starbucks (which apparently just offers the same fare as a regular Starbucks), Piroshky Piroshky (an Eastern European bakery offering ‘hot pockets on ‘roids’ as one tour guide put it) and Pike Place Chowder (seafood chowder). Each of these had some pretty outrageous lines, so we simply found ourselves going elsewhere. A great wee spot to grab a treat is a Greek yoghurt place on the corner as you enter the market. They dress up their yoghurt like most gelato places – crumbles, berry’s etc, and costs about USD$4-6 (depending on size of your tub).
As previously mentioned, we were on a pretty tight budget during our time in the Pacific Northwest, which influenced our decision to skip some of the more established Seattle attractions and hunt out some of the emerald city’s wallet-friendly sights.
After seeing the line at the original starbucks, we make the half an hour walk to the Starbucks Roastery. The roastery looks like a coffee nerds laboratory: with beans, barista machines, copper and coffee lovers everywhere. We purchased a flight of three grinds for $15USD, and enjoyed sampling a few beans from around the world.
We continued our morning walk to REI. We had heard great things about this outdoors equipment mecca but expected to call in, have a quick look around and carry on our way. However, we ended up spending an hour in there checking out the gear to see if we could conjure up an excuse to buy anything! An indoor climbing wall, a bike test track and a decked out VW Combee were just some of the highlights of this immense outdoor specialist store.
After our Stanley Park experience in Vancouver, we were keen as beans to check out Discovery Park, a weirdly identical looking park on a map (set on a peninsula to the Northwest of the main city). Green Tortoise offered bike rentals at $5/hour, with a max charge of $30 (which grants you 24 hours). In addition, we figured we would checkout Fremont, which claims to be the ‘Centre of the Universe’, which also had markets running as it was a Sunday.
A word of warning when cycling around Seattle – while very cycle-friendly, their directional signs aren’t as clear or well entrenched as Vancouver. For this reason, our cycle route north ended up taking three times as long as we had anticipated. A failure to see a sign, meant we ended up cycling over a large bridge made for cars (Magnolia Bridge), and into the respective suburb of Magnolia. While this wasn’t planned, this road/route does give some great views of the city and of Puget Sound.
Discovery Park used to be used as residences for the local navy, but they have since since moved on. If interested, these residences are actually up for sale, and would be quite a cool place to live! There are wide open spaces for any dog-enthusiasts, and a few trails around the park, with the main one being a 1.5 hour loop out to the lighthouse. While it was a nice park, Stanley Park still got our vote (plus we were pretty tuckered from riding some less-than-mint-condition bikes for 1.5 hours!).
We braved getting back on the bikes and headed on to Fremont, which was arguably the highlight of the Seattle trip. This neighbourhood is delightfully quirky, boasting landmarks like a decommissioned rocket, a statue of Vlad Lenin and the Fremont troll.
The market offers up some cool little handicrafts and food vendors, including Fire & Scrape. These guys served up melted Raclette cheese, which if you haven’t seen on Facebook, basically means they take a sandwich or plate of meat and vege, grill half a wheel of the cheese, then scrape the melted part directly onto your sandwich/plate. For two cheese-enthusiasts like us, it was amazing. They even let us half a sandwich ($12); one half bacon and mushroom, the other mushroom & rocket.
Our last stop in Fremont was Gas Works park. This brings people for two reasons.
1. It provides great views of the city skyline over Lake Union
2. Apparently a scene from 10 Things I Hate About You was shot here.
While we had the bikes, we also checked out the Olympic Sculpture Park and Pioneer Square. These were a bit overrated in our books ad a bit of a let down after Fremont and Discovery Park.
We strongly debated visiting the Chihuly Glass Gardens and Space Needle but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to pay the USD$38pp admission fee considering our desire to travel as long as possible. However, we did find out that you could grab a complimentary admission to the top of the Space Needle if you spent USD$25pp during meal times (lunch and dinner) at the ground level restaurant. We would have definitely gone for this option, but the restaurant was undergoing renovations during our visit. A few locals we spoke to also recommended ascending the Columbia Tower (taller than Space Needle) and Smiths Building (one of the older buildings with great views of the harbour and Mt. Rainier), both offering slight discounts on the Space Needle admission.
Overall, Seattle did exceed expectations, as many Canadians in Vancouver had poo-pooed it. If we could plan this route again though, we would likely take a ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, then another ferry to Port Angeles. From here you can access Olympic National Park (which we were super keen to see, but logistics and lack of affordable transport there from Seattle stopped us). The hostel was also running a day trip out to Mt. Rainier the week after we left, which would have been awesome if our timing had lined up. Basically, if you go to Seattle, I would spend a few more days and take day trips or an overnight stop out to the many national parks that surround it.
Coffee Spot – Storyville (building opposite Green Tortoise, third floor)
Cheap Eat – Pike Place Bar ($5 burger & chips, fish and chips everyday from 3-7pm)
Highlight – Fremont
Wish we did – Local National Park (Olympic or Rainier)
For the sake of comparability, we will state all our costs in USD. The costs below are an approximate total for two of us over three days;
Total: $430 USD / $602 NZD
Obviously, the US is expensive when you have to pay for your own accommodation!