We just had a long weekend here in BC. Queen Victoria had a birthday conveniently close to my own, so plus or minus a week I get an extra day off to enjoy my encroaching dotage.
This year Mrs E and I went for an overnight visit to Seattle. It’s probably about a decade since we last visited, and I was keen to take some photos of the MV Kalakala. On our last visit we’d taken one of the tours on the ex-WWII Ducks – amphibian trucks – and had seen the Kalakala when it was still on Lake Union. As it turned out, that was too ambitious a goal and we never got to Tacoma to see the old tub in its current moorage.
As we drove down, we stopped off at the outlet stores near Tulalip in the hope of snagging some wacky Converse high tops or cheap skinny Levi’s 511s. Not quite sure how, but somehow we only ended up with a Le Creuset casserole dish. Moral of the story being never take Mrs E when you’re out bargain hunting.
We pulled off the motorway at Everett to find the Starbucks promised by a siren road sign. As we came to the junction at the end of the slip-road we were met with a blind choice. No hint of which direction would lead to the beverage emporium. For no particular reason I selected the innocent sounding “20th St SE” to the left, and almost immediately regretted it as the road became a long bridge and then a highway promising Wenatchee as a potential destination. Thankfully it emerged in a rural hamlet called Lake Stevens (sans café, incidentally) which at least offered a few residential turnings and therefore the means of salvaging the mistake before too much drinking time was lost.
No matter, we’d just head back the other way and no doubt be enjoying a “London Fog” before we knew it. No such luck. One block past the motorway, and we were in Deadsville, USA.
Now, in fairness, sitting here at home with the full power of Google Maps at my fingertips, I can see lots of cafés and places we could have stopped in Everett. I’ll remember that in the extremely unlikely event I ever again feel the urge to visit. At the time though, it seemed deader than an engineering student’s potted plant. On the other hand, we were also spared “Seattle Reptiles” on Hewitt Ave, so on balance, I think we were ahead.
Deciding that the Starbucks road sign was in fact simply lying, we tried to find the entrance back to the motorway and to test our luck elsewhere. At this point I began to realise that road signage in the US is a matter left in the hands of the local village idiot rather than treated with the reverence it is rightly due. I swear we did three laps underneath the I5 before we zeroed in on an unlikely junction that thankfully, if a little unexpectedly, launched us back on our Southern journey. Mrs E made several remarks about “turning into your dad” and pantomime shooting me with loaded fingers, but we were back in familiar territory and heading once more in the right direction.
Our next attempt at refreshment was somewhat better signed, but in return lead us straight into a block-long traffic jam. Eventually we pulled into the Walmart carpark in Martha Lake and walked around the corner to Starbucks. Here I enjoyed an outrageously expensive “panino” (but not as you know it Jim) with my London Fog.
Searching for that last link, I finally discovered why Starbucks are so rabid about echoing “Earl Grey Tea Latte” when you ask for a London Fog. It seems London Fog is a proprietary name for a tea blended exclusively by Carnelian Rose Tea Co. of Vancouver, WA. Starbucks no longer used the name after being informed of the potential trade name conflict. Doesn’t seem to bother Murchies, JJ Bean or any other tea shop I’ve frequented in the Lower Mainland.
Where was I? Oh yes – Martha Lake. So, refortified with the requisite caffeine injection and over-mustardised sarnie, we set about sorting out accommodation for when we reached Seattle. It turned out there was some conference on that weekend, and HotelTonight.com gave dire warnings of the lack of cheap offerings. In the end we went for the “sight unseen” alternative at Hotwire.com, and after signing away $200 including tax, we were informed we were booked in the Red Lion hotel on 5th Avenue – nice and central. Described as a boutique hotel, we reminded ourselves that if it was REALLY bad, we could always drive home again.
The rest of the drive was uneventful, and 5th Ave turned out to be trivial to find once we left the motorway on reaching Seattle. I almost missed the underground parking because I was looking at the old British red phone box at the Elephant & Castle pub that is in the basement of the Red Lion. An anonymous block of a building, it didn’t look particularly inspiring from the outside, but once we were in the lobby I began to get more impressed. It immediately began to demonstrate its 3.5 stars as we were very politely welcomed and checked in. I couldn’t help but smile as a couple walked in off the street looking for a room and were offered their cheapest at $100 more than we had just signed up for. We were in a king size room, but the young lady on the desk asked if we’d mind sitting for a while whilst she checked if the room was in fact ready. We were a good 30 minutes ahead of the official check-in time, so a curt “come back at 4pm” wouldn’t have been out of order. Instead though, she returned in a few minutes most apologetic for making us wait and gave us the keys and a smile.
Round about this time I began to notice that Seattle service staff are at least as polite (and probably more so) than Vancouver’s. I also noticed a lot of openly gay couples (which indicated to me a very embracing, open city culture), and no litter whatsoever. When I arrived in the Lower Mainland from the UK, I was in awe at how clean Greater Vancouver was. Seattle makes it look like a rubbish tip. To be sure it has its grungy bits, and I noticed myself taking a particularly firm grip on my camera once or twice, but on balance it felt pretty safe.
Our room was lovely. This is where the “boutique” comes in. It’s a large faceless hotel on the outside – just like a Marriott or a Holiday Inn anywhere in the world. On the inside though, it felt individual. It had everything any other hotel room might have – TV, tea making facilities, chairs, desk, bed. But the decor was smart and modern. Not that neutral beige I always dread so much in big name hotels. The rooms were wheelchair accessible, and though I don’t need to make use of it just yet, it was nice to know that if I did, there was a folding seat in the shower, as well as a detachable shower head for those hard to reach places…
Dumping our clobber, we headed off to REI, replete with the map given to us by the friendly desk-wallah. A large biro X marked our destination, just in case we missed the giant REI logo right next to it. Once there time (and money) drifted away, and before long it was almost tea time. We headed to the Space Needle, and took the monorail back to Nordstrom’s just a block or so away from the hotel. The Seattle Center (sic – it’s a proper name, so I can’t spell it “properly”) had a large outdoor Chihuly collection, but it was cleverly hidden behind large hedges and I wasn’t going to pay money to see it.
Back at the hotel we dumped our purchases, freshened up, and headed out once more. Having grown quite attached to the young lady on the desk, I asked for her recommendation for a fish restaurant and she steered us to Blueacre on 7th and Olive. It was already filling up as we arrived, and the greeter met us with a disdaining eye. Plainly she wasn’t local as she was not in possession of the hitherto ubiquitous warm friendly smile. Having asked for a table for two, I honestly thought she was about to grunt that without a reservation we were SOL. Instead she reluctantly admitted that there were tables to be had in the bar area, and she could follow us with menus. Novel idea I thought. Menus in a restaurant.
Thankfully this turned out to be a minor aberration in my theory of the friendliness of Seattlites, and the waitress was attentiveness personified. We started with cocktails, and I couldn’t resist the Bond-inspired Vesper. I was disappointed to not be asked if I’d like it shaken or stirred, but one can’t have everything I suppose. Mrs E partook of a “Victimless Crime” which appeared to consist of gin, various citrus things, aniseed and “bubbles”.
A plate of oysters casbarian turned out to be baked with bacon bits, stuff, things and whatnots. Actually, it was apple smoked bacon, spinach, fennel and anise. By the time I’d finished my pan blackened Alaskan rock fish in blue cheese sauce I was fit to burst. I think it was the exquisitely done (not at all greasy) onion rings it came with.
Full menu is here if you want to torture yourself more.
The walk back to the hotel was much needed, and though still quite early, sleep came quickly.
Sunday morning came early and was announced by the rhythmic pounding of the next door neighbour. Nothing saucy… we were right next to the hotel gym, and some eager beaver was hammering away on the treadmill. Rather than being grumpy, I got up and went and did 30 minutes on the elliptical machine myself. I worked up quite the sweat – to the extent that two days later as I write this, my calves are still a bit sore. Parking was good until 4pm, so we checked out, loaded our stuff into the car, and went exploring. Naturally we headed for Pike Place Market, which was vibrant and colourful.
We dined on sticky buns (I found some “healthy” seed and nut biscuit thing. It might have been healthier if it wasn’t large enough to feed a platoon), and managed to find a coffee establishment without the green mermaid on it. A swift amble along the waterfront, and back around to the hotel via Nordstrom’s Rack to appease Mrs E’s shopping urge, and we were done.
Coming back through the border was a little bit of pantomime. We have Nexus, and I’m not totally sure what the rules are for duty free, as I usually only get asked “did you buy alcohol or tobacco?” to which the answer is always “no”.
This time though, this was the transcript:
Nice customs lady: Did you buy anything, or were you given anything?
Me: I’m sorry, what? (I was thrown by the “given anything” part)
Less nice customs lady: I said – did you buy anything, or were you given anything?
Me: Yes – we spent about $450
Sighing customs lady (plainly this was potentially a form-filling occasion for her): How long were you gone for?
More heavily sighing customs lady (plainly the wrong answer, and forms and pens were beckoning): And what did you buy?
Me: We bought some clothes and a casserole pan.
Raised eyebrow customs lady: Was any item more than $200?
Relieved customs lady (this was a pen-pushing event deftly averted, it seems): Thank-you. Goodbye.