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Stateside: Seattle On A Budget

Americans are brought up to be helpful and polite. I tell you this so that you'll preface any request for directions with the words "Excuse me", and will take the directions given with a grain of salt. The desire to be helpful can sometimes override the need to be accurate. So it was that I found myself at the greatest little cafe in Mt Vernon, Washington, having been completely unable to find the bus station I'd been directed to.

The Knotty Pine is a local cafe more or less under the water tower - that thing that looks like a giant electronic component with the words "Mt Vernon" painted on it - and it's as unpretentious as all get-out. Clean. Shiny, as in gleaming chrome milkshake mixers and well-rubbed black leather banquettes. Comfy and cheap. You have to not mind smoking though. Real people have their breakfast here - and $5.95 will get you a big plate of liver and bacon with mashed spuds and gravy, a wad of lettuce and a slice of tomato, a biscuit to soak up the gravy, and a bottomless mug of coffee.

Somewhat surreally the little white colour tv on the counter was tuned to Martha Stewart (home style guru) the morning I was there and her guests were extolling the virtues of the various types of champagne, caviar and pate de foie gras available in New York for the impending New Year celebrations. Pathetic fare compared to what I was enjoying!

Yes, I was in Washington state in winter and it wasn't half bad. If you can stand a frosty, foggy Waikato winter morning you can stand the Northwestern states of America in the off season. Seattle, where I made my base for a week, was once described by Alistair Cooke as a rain-soaked village midway between San Francisco and Alaska but the only time it rained in the week from Christmas Eve to New Year's Eve eve was on the Friday evening before I left, and then it was just a drizzle. "Sprinkles" as they say in California when the fog rolls in.

Getting to Seattle is easy. I took the Coastal Starlight from San Francisco because I love train rides and the coach seats are perfectly comfortable for sleeping in during the 24 hour journey. If you book far enough in advance - and you can book through - you get significant savings on the fare, as you also do if you want to fly to Seattle and check out the internet specials offered by various airlines, such as Southwest. The first two nights I stayed in a bed and breakfast in the University District, which cost $48.85 a night, and then I moved into a backpackers hostel in the heart of the city where a private room was $50 a night and a bunk bed $17.

The College Inn b and b was probably the better value as it was only a half-hour bus ride from downtown and the U. District is pretty interesting in itself. A walking tour map of the area shows local buildings of interest (including the College Inn itself), art galleries, the Blue Moon Tavern where author Tom Robbins tried to make a collect call to Pablo Picasso and was rebuffed, bookshops, cafes and theatres associated with the University of Washington.

Walking tour maps are prolific in Seattle and useful to have, but even if you walk along the city streets with your head down you can't avoid that essential element of the city's life - art - because even the steel plates in the pavement that give access to utilities have been designed by artists commissioned by the utility companies. There is a great deal of public art in the city, perhaps beacuse, since its establishment in 1971, the Seattle Arts Commission has been steadily fulfilling its mission to increase public awareness and support of the arts.

If you like walking you might like to try shamping - a cross between tramping and shopping. You'll need good comfy walking shoes, a back pack for the bargains you'll find, and $1.25 for a metro bus fare (including the transfer when you get tired of shamping). I took the number 48 bus to the end of the line and discovered the Gob Shoppe, a head shop from way back, and the Blue Sunset cafe next door. Relax with a cup of hot chocolate and a game of crib or dominoes then set out down the steps to Shilshole Bay.

This black sand beach is popular in summer but pretty much deserted in winter, although it adjoins a packed marina where I spotted a yacht named Rangatira, perhaps in honour of Chief Sealth, after whom Seattle is named. Walking back past the marina you come to the Ballard Locks, where the salt water of Puget Sound is kept out of the fresh water of Salmon Bay, and eventually to the suburb of Ballard itself. This area has a lot of Scandinavian connections - there's a Scandanavian museum nearby with the world's longest tapestry - and good basic shops.

A local bakery even gives away samples of the bread it makes each day and by the time you've shamped your way there you'll be more than ready for the thick fresh buttered slab they give you to try. Across the street is the quaintly named "Brick Shirt House", and nearby is the famous Archie McPhee's emporium of junk nobody in their right mind could possibly need, except if it was for their profession. Cardboard crematorium coffins, anyone? If you've got time to use that bus transfer carry on to Fremont, where time allegedly stands still and all the happening people live.

There's actually plenty to do in the heart of Seattle itself without going out into the suburbs. There's Pike Market, the waterfront, the Seattle Art Museum, the Space Needle, the aquarium, and frequent ferries across to the islands in Puget Sound. You could even take the Cascades train up to Vancouver, Canada, and back in one day. Or take the same train to Mt Vernon, as I did, and then use the free Skagit County transit system to get to Anacortes were the ferries go out to the San Juan Islands, site of a territorial war between the British and the Americans, with the British eventually being pushed back to neighbouring Vancouver Island.

Be warned though - the bus to Anacortes leaves from the next town, Burlington, and the bus to Burlington goes only once every hour, by which time you could have walked anyway, as I did. When you get off the train at Mt Vernon walk back in the direction you've come to the first street crossing the tracks, turn right, then turn right again at the first set of traffic lights and just keep walking until you get to Cascade Mall, which is on the left-hand side of the road. As opposed to the Cascade Plaza which is on the right hand side of the road just before you get to the Mall! The bus for Anacortes leaves from outside the theatre complex in the Mall once an hour but takes you all the way to the ferry terminal.

If you want to avoid trains and buses and walking you can of course hire a car and do the same thing - the ferries are roll-on, roll-off so once you get to your island destination you can drive around the tourist sights, such as the whale-watching possie on San Juan Island itself. Or you can hire a car or bike on the islands themselves. Sad to say because of my earlier misdirection and breakfast at the Knotty Pine I didn't have time to get off and look around the island because I wanted to get back to Seattle the same night, but there are plenty of accommodations on the various islands if you want to stay.

Seattle is a stunningly beautiful city, the public transport is clean and runs frequently and even all the bus stops are works of art, painted brightly by students at nearby schools and universities. The one near my b and b in the U. District had Margaret Mead's quote on it: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." That's Seattle for you.

Happy Nelson Mandela Freedom Day!

Lea Barker
11 February 2001

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