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Pacific Northwest
The Pacific Northwest
Get outside and keep your cool along the American northwest's stunning coastline

By Mary Reynolds Thompson

From Seattle to Vancouver, this rugged coast is the quintessential North American west, the end of Lewis & Clarke’s epic explorations, and home to some of the most spectacular natural wildlife, outdoor sport opportunities as well an emerging 4-star cultural scene.

Visit the northwest, and your inner nature lover can thrill to the snow-capped Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges, or stand dwarfed by some of the planet’s largest trees. From short strolls through ancient forests to island hopping along the area’s signature verdant archipelagos, there are countless ways for the traveler to absorb the surrounding beauty. Meanwhile, satisfy the culture lover within by visiting some of the world’s most livable - and visit-worthy - cities: Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver.

First stop Seattle

The cradle of pop culture, the latte, and likes of Microsoft and Amazon.com, the Pacific Northwest’s Emerald City buzzes with things to do and see. Watch the gulls wheel over Elliot Bay and the ferry glide off for Bainbridge Island. Visit the iconic Pike Place Market and mingle with the locals as you savor the freshest fish in town. While there, eat Italian food alfresco at the Pink Door (There’s no name of the door, but it is pink!). Then walk off lunch at Discovery Park in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood. Its 512 acres sits on a bluff overlooking the bay and mountains.

For modern music enthusiasts, a visit to The Experience Music Project museum, designed by Frank Gehry to resemble Jimi Hendrix’s melting Fender Stratocaster, is a must. And book lovers won’t want to miss a visit to the Elliot Bay Book Company. Every author who comes to town makes a stop there. For latte land’s perfect brew? The Espresso Vivace Roasteria on Capitol Hill – their famous espresso machines are calibrated to the nth degree.

Bainbridge Island just a 35-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle, Bainbridge Island offers an easy escape from the bustle of the city. Winslow, where the ferry docks, is a genuine – if rather gentrified – town replete with yachts in the marina and music in the cafes. Start your walking tour on the shoreline footpath that heads west from the ferry to Eagle Harbor Waterfront Park, a lovely place for a picnic lunch – weather permitting. Best to on foot - if you’re arriving by car, expect real problems parking on weekends.

Vashon Island has vintage charm, how’s this for a well kept secret? Washington is the second-largest producer of wine in the U.S. And Vashon Island, just a fifteen-minute ferry ride from West Seattle, boasts four superb wineries, all within biking distance of the ferry dock. The best known is the Andrew Will winery with its production of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese. Vashon Winery is a tiny “garagiste” winery producing less than 600 cases of wine annually, characterized by richer tannin levels without the high alcohol content of newer wines. The "pocket winery" of Palouse does well with both whites and reds — a barrel-fermented Viognier; a ripe, round Riesling; and soft, dark and tannic reds. At Sweetbread Cellars, George and Kristin Page crush by foot and use wild yeasts. The wines are delicious and distinctive.

The San Juan Islands Nestled between the Washington Coast and Vancouver Island, and with the Olympic Mountains and the snow-crested volcanoes of the Cascades as backdrop, Puget Sound is one of the most spectacular corners of the Pacific Northwest.  Here, the San Juans, an archipelago made up of hundreds of islands, beckon with natural beauty and more days of sunshine than Tucson! Kayak among the harbor seals or cycle more than 500 miles of rolling country roads and rugged coastline. Or take a wildlife cruise to the archipelago’s rarely visited outer islets and watch for the orcas, dolphins, bald eagles and ospreys.

Victoria –Still fit for a queen? Named after the notoriously prudish queen, Victoria has been mocked as a British throwback, a refuge of royalty buffs, and a repository of so many flowers gardens, croquet lawns and bowling greens – even the English might consider it, well, too English. In the last decade, however, Victoria, on Vancouver Island’s sunny southern tip, is evincing a cool side. Union Jacks may still fly at full mast in the windows of souvenir shops, but street buskers animate the sidewalks at night, and restaurants, like the cozy Brasserie L’Ecole, serve up international fare in trendy places like Chinatown’s Fan Tan Alley. This narrow street houses some of Victoria’s funkiest stores. At the closet-sized Smoking Lily, you can pick up T-shirts silk-screened with coastal motifs and even have your tarot cards read at Triple Spiral.

To avoid the tourist crowds, forego the double-decker bus tour and explore Victoria by foot. Begin by the Parliament Buildings, a domed structure designed in the 1890s by the talented young architect, Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the famous Empress Hotel that overlooks the Inner Harbour. The Royal British Columbia Museum exhibits a priceless collection of totem poles and ceremonial masks displaying the mastery of the Kwakwaka’wakw craftsmen. Later rent a bike and pedal along Dallas Road where you can watch kiteboarders riding the wind of Juan de Fuca Strait with the icy peaks of the Olympic Peninsula in the background. A mile east of Beacon Hill Park, the romantic gardens of Ross Bay Cemetery beckon, the tombstones of which read like a 19th century novel.

After a day of activity, nothing quite compares with checking into the Magnolia Hotel and Spa for a hot stone massage and suites with views of the Inner Harbour.

The Gulf Islands – a world of whales and porpoise tails Canada’s answer to Washington’s popular San Juans, only less populated and quieter, the Gulf Islands are a string of 100 partially submerged mountain peaks lying in the Strait of Georgia, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Salt Springs is the largest and most popular of the islands. And while only about 35 miles southwest of Vancouver, the ferry’s outbound route stops at Galiano, Mayne, and Pender Islands, making the voyage to Salt Springs feel like a retreat to another world. For a warm welcome, stay at the Old Farmhouse Bed and Breakfast run by Geri and Karl Fuss. A century-old white Victorian on a rolling tree-shaded lawn, it offers a luxurious sense of escape. In Ganges, the island’s only real town, stop for soup and a sandwich at the Tree House Café. With a friendly bohemian, huggy-people feel, don’t be surprised to find yourself connecting with locals as if they were old friends.

Vancouver revisited. A city of astonishing beauty, home to the planet's loveliest gardens and some of its finest food - Vancouver is a model of urban utopianism, blending Pacific Rim cool and British Commonwealth comforts. Vancouver’s North Shore mountains, sharply visible from any place in the city, are a reminder of nature's presence, as is the ocean, whose salty fragrance often drifts onto Vancouver streets. Vancouver also happens to be one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas anywhere, and is home to the third largest Chinatown in the world. In 2010 it will also be the largest city and the only one at sea level, to host the winter Olympic games.

Vancouver began life in the mid-1800s as a settlement for gold seekers and fur traders. And today, it is one of the world's great port cities, with suburbs stretching along the Fraser River far to the south and east. It is possible to wake up in a downtown hotel and just minutes later be walking through nature in Stanley Park, which juts into the Pacific Ocean.  Better yet, you can rent a tandem bicycle from Spokes (tel. 604-688-5141) and do the park under your own pedal-power.  Later, stroll along the 15-block seawall walk in West Vancouver, one of Canada's wealthiest communities with some of the country's most striking architecture.

Main Street at 49th Avenue features the Punjabi Market, where women in jewel-colored saris congregate like birds of paradise. Enjoy an equally exotic experience by eating at Chambar on 562 Beatty Street. Winner of the Golden Plate Readers’ Choice Award, this Belgian restaurant is themed with a North African flavor and serves up tapas in an unpretentious atmosphere.

For garden lovers, the North Quarry Garden of Queen Elizabeth Park is a favorite destination. But don’t miss this secret gem: the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden folded into Vancouver’s Chinatown. It is the first full-scale classic Chinese garden built outside of China and features the four primary elements – water, stone, plants, and architecture –  that advance the Taoist theory of yin and yang.

When to go?

Most of Seattle's rain falls between October and April, so summer is when the city stages all its big festivals. San Juan Islands enjoy a climate more akin to a desert than to the temperate rainforest. Summer weather patterns typically include sunny skies, calm winds, and moderate temperatures. Victoria enjoys 65% more sunshine than Vancouver. With its mild weather and temperate climate there is always a flower in bloom from the cherry blossoms in January, through daffodils and tulips in March, lilacs in May, to the abundance of roses and rhododendrons in summer and fall. With less than 30 inches of rain a year, the Gulf Islands are known for their warm, mild climate. But the best time to visit is April through October for weather and Saturday Markets. Vancouver winters are mild, with flowers beginning to bloom as early as February. Vancouver's most visitor-friendly season, however, is summer, with average temperatures hovering around 70 degrees.

Mary Reynolds Thompson is a lifelong writer and traveler. Born in London, England, Mary fell in love with Positano, Italy at age three on a family vacation and hasn’t stopped exploring since. From the cobblestone lanes of Ljubljana to the wild, windy tip of Tierra del Fuego, Mary’s diverse range of travel experiences provide the insights for our destination features.

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