Pacifically Speaking

27 May

Part 1

Seattle was the last on my list of ‘big cities’ to visit in the US. I’m happy to report that as of early May, I have been able to check it off! A few things made this trip possible, viz., a soon to expire visa to Canada, a strong desire to visit Vancouver, and the possibility of doing so from the US, by means of a train journey!

I’m also rather pleased to say that of the 12 ‘big cities’ I have visited in the US, Seattleites, in my opinion, are by far the friendliest lot! After an absolutely painless border crossing experience at Blaine, WA (on my return from Vancouver), I’ve decided to extend this proclamation to the entire state of Washington!

A good place to start discovering how friendly people are or aren’t is at a local eatery. It didn’t take me long to do so as I arrived close to lunch hour on a Friday, and on the advise of another local (via email), headed straight to Matt’s in the Market.

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Over a plate of Grilled St.Jude’s Albacore Tuna and a glass of chilled Naughty Nellie Golden Ale (by Pike Brewing Co.), I chatted with locals sitting at the bar and the bartender. Seattleites will be more than happy to recommend you a ‘local’ and the city abounds in good eateries (especially of the seafood variety), micro breweries and independent coffee houses.

Working it all of is never a problem either – especially so in downtown – what with its abundance of SF-esque steep slopes! Look west down any of the named streets and you will be forgiven for thinking your in San Francisco!

Just like SF, Seattle enjoys a great natural setting – the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains to the west, a handful of lakes and the Cascade Mountains to the east, and on a clear day, Mount Rainier, just around the corner, or thereabouts!

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Portland, about 200 miles south in the state of Oregon, is often likened to Seattle. While that is true to some extent, Portland has the feel of a small town when compared to Seattle. Not a bad thing at all, for many! However, if your looking for a ‘city’ experience in the Pacific Northwest, Seattle is your best bet!

The Emerald City’s downtown core is much larger to begin with, definitely has a big city vibe to it, and its skyline stands up to the likes of Miami and LA..

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At the southern edge of Seattle’s downtown sits its historic district, Pioneer Square, boasting a wealth of heritage buildings ranging in style from Art Deco to Neoclassical to Beaux-Arts.

Bold, modern architecture isn’t in short supply either, with the who’s who of architecture having contributed their designs to the city – Rem Koolhas, Minoru Yamasaki (the man who designed the twin towers in NYC) and Frank Gehry, to name a few!

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Of the several corporations that call Seattle home – Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, Nordstrom, Costco, amongst them – Boeing is still the city’s largest employer and probably its most respected company, despite having moved its headquarters to Chicago!. If you happen to have any interest in Boeing or aviation in general, then I strongly recommend a visit to the Museum of Flight (easily accessible by public bus # 124, 20 minutes from downtown). Aviation diehards should budget a full day there!

If the weather permits, an hour long cruise around Elliott Bay is worth considering to. For the evening, before you hit the restaurants and bars, the 90 minute long ‘Underground Tour‘ is highly recommended. A large part of downtown Seattle was rebuilt after the great fire of 1889 – it wasn’t just rebuilt from the ground up though, instead, from one level up! The tour takes you through 3 different subterranean passages that were once the storefronts of the city, the remains of which lie under the present day sidewalks and streets!

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Fascinating – Yes! Worth the 15$ – Absolutely!!

Part 2

It has been my long-standing quest to do an international border crossing by train in North America. A similar attempt to travel into Montreal from NYC failed me last summer. But the 0740 “Cascades” to Vancouver made up for my earlier disappointment, and then some!

At the outset, let me just say this – I took the bus on the way back and the road journey totally pales in comparison. Take the train, whatever you do! And do yourself a favour and upgrade to Biz Class – I did so for a measly 13 bucks!  Then, sit back, sip on your chilled craft beer (multiple varieties available in the Bistro Car) and take in sweeping vistas of the Puget Sound and the snow capped Olympic Mountains, to your heart’s content!

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I arrived in Vancouver close to noon – enough time to check in to my hostel on Granville St, the city’s main thoroughfare, and walk about a mile south for lunch to Granville Island, one of the city’s biggest attractions.

Originally known as ‘Industrial Island’ for all the manufacturing that took place there, the island today is host to a fresh foods market, galleries, studios, shops, cafes, a marina, boats for rental, and a bunch of sea food restaurants, one of which, Sandbar, was recommended to me by a fishmonger in the food market!

A great one at that – the recommendation i.e.! The chips were out of this world, the Snapper was nice and flaky and the Honey Larger, from the island’s own brewery, was the perfect accompaniment to my first meal in the city.

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For the longest time, Vancouver has probably been the most hyped up city in North America, known for its quality of life and standard of living. For that reason alone, I had been intrigued by it all along. And in my short time there, I wasn’t the least bit disappointed! The city’s most redeeming feature, however, and probably its biggest plus, is its natural setting – quite unlike anything else I have seen before. One could argue that Seattle and San Francisco (within North America at least!) have a similar setting, but the one thing none of them can claim is such proximity to nature’s bounty!

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In Vancouver, all it takes to get to the Capilano Highlands – home to the famed suspension bridge, Capilano Lake (pictured above) and Cleveland Dam, amongst others – is a 10 minute ferry ride across from downtown and another 10 minutes on a public bus!

It’s little wonder then that every third accent in the city is either Aussie or Kiwi. The folks from Australasia make up the bulk of the city’s expat population and to think they would leave behind perfectly good weather for Vancouver’s often wet climate is testament enough to all the quality of life indices the city seems to top, time and again!

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Still, if you’re looking for charm and character, in the traditional sense at least, you might feel a little short changed here! High rises abound, everything is modern and new, and you’d be hard pressed to come across anything historic, old world or quaint, with the exception of Gastown, maybe!

And that’s probably reason enough NOT to have a fixed agenda there. Like every other ‘world city’ worth its global salt, Vancouver has a list of ‘must see’ attractions and  ‘must do’ things, but you’d be better served spending your hours seeking out and exploring its several outdoor treasures.

Like riding the 6 mile loop around Stanley Park, for starters!

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Bounded on three sides by the Strait of Georgia, a forest of a half million cedars & firs within, and endless vistas of the North Shore Mountains, it is, quite definitively, the most stunning setting for an urban park, period!

And once you’ve wandered its countless parks, forests, mountains, marinas, and promenades, choose from one of ten sandy beaches, spanning 11 miles in all, on which to watch a spectacular sunset from! For my part, I chose Kitsilano..

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When your sufficiently exhausted from soaking up the outdoors, the city offers several gastronomic delights to cheer up the weary! Great seafood, as I’d mentioned, countless Asian eateries, including several Izakayas (some of them Korean style!) and the best Indian cuisine I have eaten in North America (sorry Lahore Tikka House!).

The food at Rangoli (a sister concern of Vij’s in the Shaughnessy neighbourhood) has an inventive menu, serves fresh, non-greasy, perfectly salted and delicious tasting appetisers & mains, and some of the best Meethi Roti (sweet Indian bread) you can hope to imbibe outside of a North Indian home! All of it cooked exclusively by lady chefs!

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For a city that boasts an impressive skyline, several waterfronts and of course lofty snow capped mountains as a backdrop, an aerial view is in order. But in Vancouver, observation decks (no diss to the Harbour Centre) are passé! Instead, indulge yourself to a seaplane ride, taking in all the views you can imagine, in the most exhilarating manner possible!

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A word of caution – not everyone is lucky enough to get a seat next to the pilot 😉

Comparisons are odious, they say, but also inevitable! For that reason, I’m kind of glad I visited Portland first (last May), then Seattle and finally Vancouver! Just like Portland did vis-à-vis Seattle, in its own little way, Seattle too held its own against all the might, and, dare I say ‘hype’ of Vancouver!

Last but not the least, a big thanks to the weather gods, for providing me five perfectly glorious days in two cities that are known for being wet, year round!

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A full set of pics for Seattle, Vancouver and the Cascades journey can be seen on my Flickr.

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