On paper, Seattle isn’t unlike Baltimore—it’s a port city with a population just over 600,000 (if you omit the millions of people in the suburbs). And yet, there’s a vastness of scale we don’t have. The fir trees have diameters up to 6 feet—some stand as tall as 250 feet. The Puget Sound has 2500 miles of coastline, and reaches depths of 930 feet. The snow-capped Olympia Mountains rise on the other side of the sound’s glacial water. On the sunny days of our visit, that deep shade of blue seemed impossible, like something out of a beer ad.
I was there to give a presentation called “Teaching and Writing Overseas” at the annual AWP conference—the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Before I landed my job at Goucher College and moved to Baltimore, I taught at a university in England for five years. Others on my panel had worked in Bulgaria, France, Ukraine and Spain—we all had stories to tell about how the overseas life can be full of headaches and isn’t quite as romantic as one might imagine.
There was something, it seemed to me, “overseas-ish” about being in Seattle. We hadn’t crossed any oceans, but we’d crossed a continent—the flights, with layovers, took about the same time as a nonstop to London. The landscape and wildlife were as foreign for us East Coasters as anything in Europe. And yet, the accents were familiar, we had access to our ATMs and there were more Starbucks than I’d ever seen in my life. It was, in short, a winning combination of the exotic and the easy.
I especially enjoyed my mornings in Seattle, running through Discovery Park and Elliott Bay Park, right on the water. There are separate paths for runners and for cyclists, so that everyone can enjoy the vista—the huge cargo ships, the circling cormorants, possibly even seals on the beaches—at his or her own pace, something that seems very Seattle.
I definitely needed to burn the calories. My boyfriend, Howard, a physician by day and a consummate foodie every other moment, had been researching Seattle’s offerings for months. Whenever the 25 concurrent AWP panels got to be too much, we’d escape on a culinary adventure. Sometimes a frazzled Baltimore writer friend or two we’d find in the lobby would come along. Howard was a like a comfort food guru to the overworked; we were ready to leave behind earthly concerns.
It’s no secret that Seattle has great salmon. Howard discovered, though, that the city also offers outstanding vegan and local fare. First, we tried his picks in Capitol Hill, a short walk from downtown. Our server at Sitka & Spruce told us that the tea we ordered had been foraged by a woman who specialized in such endeavors. The ginger mint tea was both pungent and smooth in a way that no tea bag can offer. None of us who ate at Plum Vegan Bistro were vegans, but the food was so good, we kept falling silent and staring at each other with big eyes. “I can’t believe this is vegan. How is this vegan?”
On subsequent days, we ventured farther afield into the neighborhoods of Wallingford and Fremont. In Wallingford, where we had amazing and authentic soba, we stumbled across the Erotic Bakery. We were encouraged not to take photos of the cupcake display and to stop all that giggling. Each one had a marzipan penis or vagina or set of breasts on it—just the right gift for one of our newly single friends.
Howard’s pick in Fremont was the Theo chocolate factory. Anyone who has been to Ma Petite Shoe in Hampden knows this company, which makes such ingenious chocolate bars as Bread & Chocolate, Ghost Chili and Fig, Fennel & Almond. The gift shop offered samples of every bar they make—around two dozen different varieties—generous, gigantic broken pieces stocked in deep bins. There was free coffee to wash it down. It was a bit like getting drunk.
We decided to splurge on our last night and go to Canlis, one of the most highly rated restaurants in the U.S., a place with a long history. John Wayne used to eat there. “Ooh, Canlis,” locals kept saying when we told them we had a reservation.They would nod in that knowing way that said: Yes, my friend, you have chosen well. It’s the kind of place where they don’t give you a valet ticket. They just know who you are and your car is waiting when you come out. We ordered the vegetarian tasting menu—seven courses for $105/person. Through the enormous picture window, we watched seaplanes land in the sound while we ate some of the best food we’ve had in our lives, including beets with goat milk and lemon curd and butternut squash with capers and brown butter sabayon.
Worth traversing a continent for? You bet. And we didn’t even need our passports.
Pike Place Market is more than a tourist attraction. It’s a vibrant functioning market that offers fresh food, especially seafood and produce, as well as handmade crafts. pikeplacemarket.org
The Seattle Great Wheel offers great views of the city and, on a clear day, the Olympia Mountains across the sound. Tickets, $8.50 to $50 VIP. seattlegreatwheel.com
For foodie-approved and award-winning cocktails, try Oliver’s Lounge in the extra elegant Mayflower Park Hotel, where you might want to splurge and stay a night. (The “Spy Who Loved Seattle” package sounds perfect.) mayflowerpark.com
The Book Larder Community Cookbook Store has been named Best Bookstore by Seattle Magazine and Seattle Weekly, and recently garnered attention in Bon Appetit’s “The World’s Best Cookbook Stores” guide 2014. booklarder.com
Best Photo Op
While visiting the artsy ‘hood known as the Center of the Universe, check out the Fremont Troll, a public sculpture under George Washington Memorial Bridge. He grips a Volkswagen Beetle in one hand—and visitors are encouraged to “interact” with him (i.e. climb on him, try to poke out his eye, etc.). 3405 Troll Ave N.