Ideas for enjoying the real life of Seattle (that often cost little or nothing).

Saturday, January 27, 2007

When in Rome... or Seattle: Eagle Watching on the Skagit

This post is one in an intermittent series on places and activities favored by Seattle locals when they want to “sightsee” their own backyard. In every city there are activities and landmarks promoted to tourists that locals avoid, because of the crowds, the cost, the “cheesy” factor, and/or having done it every time family visits from out of town. In Seattle, these include the Space Needle, the Underground Tour of Pioneer Square, and riding “The Duck,” among others. Ever wonder how a New Yorker sightsees in Manhattan or a Parisian in Paris? Here is a look at what Seattlites do when they want play tourist.

One of the most raw yet beautiful events of nature in Cascadia is occurring right now on the upper Skagit River, approximately 2 hours north and east of Seattle. A major salmon spawn is in full swing, attracting hundreds of bald eagles. This year, the Nature Conservancy counted over 500 balds along an 11.5 mile stretch of the river. This is a record for the Skagit and is the largest gathering of the raptors in the country.

Cascadians, in turn, flock to the area to take in the amazing sights of both the salmon run and the convention of eagles and other large birds that converge to feast. Each year thousands of visitors arrive with binoculars, cameras, boots, and raincoats to watch the spectacle of this cycle of life.

Left: Bald eagles dining on spawning salmon in the upper Skagit River. Photo from the Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team, taken by Bradley Husick.

The upper Skagit is an intensely beautiful area with dense forest laced with moss and carpeted in ferns, salal, and other evergreen undergrowth. The small towns of Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount which line the Skagit River host the annual Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival” which happens next weekend, February 3rd and 4th. Events range from the “biscuits-and-gravy” breakfast feed at the local senior center to scientific presentations, guided tours, and entertainment in the form of storytelling and musical concerts. The locals put their heart and soul into the festival. They are very proud to be stewards of this part of the region and to be helping to preserve this annual rite of nature.

There are many ways to see the eagles, from guided hikes to float trips. However, you don’t have to be an outdoorsman to catch the action. Highway 20 parallels the river in many places and it is common to see folks pulled over on the shoulder of the road, taking pictures of the feasting birds from inside their cars.

Here is a link to a couple video clips of eagles feeding on salmon in the Skagit.

How to Get There:

Head north on I-5 one hour to Sedro Wooley, then east on Highway 20.

Where to Eat (and stay):

There are many little local cafes and restaurants in the area. Most are of similar casual, family-style quality. For a little piece of history and local color, stop in at the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount. This restaurant/hotel used to be the area’s brothel (many, many moons ago). Last time I ate there, the waitress told us about shooting a bear in her back yard who had started rummaging in the trash cans. Generally, shooting bear is illegal except for when one becomes a “public nuisance and danger”. “And,” she told us, “bear’s good eatin.”

An eagle-watching trip can easily be a one day outing. However, if you want to make a weekender of it, there are many kitschy, little places to stay along the way.

Delving a little Deeper:

If you do make a weekend of it and want take a break from the Festival, check to see if any of the other hiking trails in the area are open and hikeable.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Carnival of Ideas for Cheap Eats

Back in October, Chowhound started a thread on its Pacific Northwest forum on the $5-or-less meal in Seattle. There's a month's worth of lunches (or dinners) listed now, and a similar list was compiled for Portland.

Fill 'er up!

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Weekenders: The Methow Valley

This is the first in an intermittent series on weekend getaway destinations that are 1/2 day or less drive from Seattle. There are so many options: seashore, islands, mountains, countryside, neighboring cities and towns. We will take a look at some of the best examples of each.

On the eastern border of Cascadia, where Highway 20 touches down from a flight through the North Cascades, there is a magical place called the Methow Valley. This region, half wilderness and half cowboy country, is an outdoor recreationalist’s dream, both in the summer and the winter. Although it is a “working” valley of farms and ranches, it is also a mecca for Seattlites craving real seasons; the heat of summer and the snow of winter.

This time of year, many of the ranchers and farmers open their fields for cross-country skiers. There is over 100 miles of groomed cross-country trail in the valley. Track, skate, and back country skiers flock to the valley from December to early March. There are ample snowshoeing trails as well, and each year there are more trails (ski and snowshoe) that are open to dogs!!

Above: The dog-friendly, "Big Valley" trail just east of Mazama

In the summer, many of the ski trails continue to be publicly accessible for walking and mountain biking. There are also many great hiking trails in the national forest. Climbers scour Goat Wall. There is hiking and horseback riding. There are music festivals and rodeos.

How To Get There

Getting to the Valley is the only challenge. From Seattle in the wintertime, the drive is at least five hours. Travelers must take either Steven’s Pass (Highway 2) or Snoqualmie Pass (I-90) to Blewett Pass (Highway 97). The North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) is closed in the winter due to heavy snow and avalanche danger. However, the 20 is the undeniable route to take in the summer. Each journey is beautiful, but the 20 is unsurpassed.

Where To Stay

In the wintertime, the preferred destinations are the communities closest to the mountains. Early Winters, Mazama and Winthrop are the areas that will have the best snow. There are many affordable, little cabin motels in the Valley, including Winthrop. My favorite Winthrop accommodation, however, is the Duck Brand Hotel and Cantina. It is a comfortable spot right in kitschy, "old western", downtown Winthrop with very reasonable prices. For a more all-inclusive and swankier stay, try the wonderful Mazama Country Inn. The hearty yet gourmet meals are served family-style in the winter, and they set up a brown bag buffet so you can pack a trail lunch for your ski day. Many folks like the Sun Mountain Lodge, a classic hotel/resort on the south rise of the valley.


There is a wide selection of great, inexpensive food in the Valley. Here's just a small selection:

Mazama Country Store in Mazama
Topo Cafe (Asian) in Winthrop
Duck Brand Cantina (Mexican) in Winthrop
The Twisp River Pub in Twisp
Tappi (Italian) in Twisp
The Cinnamon Twisp Bakery in Twisp
The Blackbird Cafe in Twisp

All dining in the Valley is casual, or at least casual optional. Never worry about walking in in jeans and boots!

Gearing Up

Winthrop Mountain Sports is the favorite outdoor clothing and equipment shop in the valley.

The Trails End Bookstore in Winthrop is your gear shop for the more snowy days.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

PS to Coffee-Counter Culture: A Starbucks Upgrade

In my last post I lauded local coffee houses over Starbucks. However, if your caffeine withdrawal does not allow you to venture more than 1/2 block to find your fix, this morning I read in the Seattle PI a reason to step into Starbucks: they are switching to BGH-free milk. Always a good thing.


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Coffee-Counter Culture

Sometimes there is truth behind a stereotype. One such true myth is that of the caffeine-propelled, latte-swilling Seattlite. We looooooooove our coffee. (Although, some of us prefer our brew straight-up. I’m a cup-a-joe girl, myself.) We spend top dollar to cozy a big mug of fine java, or score a pound of lovingly roasted beans. It is also true, I am sad to say, that lines at Starbucks can wind through the shop 30 espresso-fixated customers deep.

Mind you, Starbucks does a fine job… a wide range of descent coffee drinks whirled out like baseballs in a batting cage. For what they do, which is ensure consistent, good quality at high volume, they have it down. However… if you are looking for great coffee, something unique, and to linger over it in a coffeehouse with ambience and local personality – and fabulous pastries, check out a few of these favorite neighborhood coffeehouses:

Sip & Ship

Bellino Coffee
Macrina Bakery
Uptown Espresso

Capitol Hill:
B and O Espresso (No website)
Bauhaus Coffee
Café Vita

Canal St. Coffee (no website)
Icon Coffee (no website)

Verite Coffee

Pioneer Square:

Queen Anne:
El Diablo
Caffe Ladro
Uptown Espresso

University District
Café Allegro (no website)

There are, oh-so-many more wonderful neighborhood coffeehouses (and so many more neighborhoods for that matter). These are those I know, personally, to be great. I recommend you check out Caffinated & Unstrung for the full lowdown on where to go when you’re in the ‘hood, no matter which ‘hood it is.

Finally, Here are a few of the stellar roasters in the city. Like some small wineries, often their volume is so small, you can’t find their product unless you go to their shop (or call and order):

Vivace Espresso
Caffe Ladro
Café Vita

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Kitsch Factor

For those who get their kicks on the funky side of life, here's a sampling of Seattle's kitschy destinations:

Rat City Roller Girls

Yes, roller derby has had a renaissance in Seattle in the form of an all-women team in a growing league. Although this is honest competition and true athletics, these gals play up the camp as well, with stage names such as "Dirty Little Secret," Burnett Down," and "Diva Skate" as well as personalizing thier uniforms with details such as fishnet stockings, cat ears on helmets, and face paint. They have a rabid fan base. Check out the "Hall of Pain" injury gallery on the website!

Sunset Bowl

For those of you who prefer to participate in your sports, check out Sunset Bowl, a Seattle landmark in Ballard that continues to draw crowds with 24x7 (yes, it's true) hours and some of the rockin'-est Karaoke in Seattle in the nagahide-covered lounge. Check out some local reviews...

Archie McPhee's

The kitschiest shop in the kitschiest neighborhood in Seattle (Fremont), Archie McPhee's is the epicenter of funny, funky STUFF. These are the folks who brought us the action-figure librarian (modeled after our own Nancy Pearl), among other treasures. Stepping into this store is like stepping into a carnival.

Deluxe Junk

Also in Fremont, Deluxe Junk is a mecca for midcentury modern furnishings and vintage, Hollywood inspired tiki and Asian decor. Everything is in pristine condition and artfully merchandised. You will lose track of time here.

13 Coins

If you want to take your camp in a different direction, 13 Coins, a rat-packy old-school classic of Seattle, is the place to head. These guys are the best kind of kitch... they are not trying to be that way, they've just never changed! Open 24 hours a day, they serve up classics such as jumbo shrimp on ice, eggs benedict, and baked salmon. Try to snag a high-backed counter seat to watch the cooks flip omlettes and steaks over high-licking flames.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

When in Rome…or Seattle: Mt. Si

This is the first in an intermittent series on places and activities favored by Seattle locals when they want to “sightsee” their own backyard. In every city there are activities and landmarks promoted to tourists that locals avoid, because of the crowds, the cost, the “cheesy” factor, and/or having done it every time family visits from out of town. In Seattle, these include the Space Needle, the Underground Tour of Pioneer Square, and riding “The Duck,” among others. Ever wonder how a New Yorker sightsees in Manhattan or a Parisian in Paris? Here is a look at what Seattlites do when they want play tourist.

When Seattlites want to “get outside,” test their meddle, and take in some awe-inspiring scenery without hauling out the backpack, they head to Mt. Si. Located in the beginning of the Cascade foothills, about ½ hour east of Seattle in North Bend, this day hike is a pilgrimage for many locals; some annually, some weekly, some daily. Many hike it in the late spring to test their readiness for other mountain excursions. It offers lovely, forest scenery and stunning views of the Cascades and the city from the top.

An eight mile hike, round trip, you climb 3700 feet to a craggy outcropping with views to the west (Seattle) and south (Mt. Rainier). If you investigate a bit, you will also find some views to the north (Mt Baker).

Left: The view South

While on the trail, you may need to step aside for one of the Mt Si runners. These are folks training for big races and use Mt. Si as their Stairmaster. If you see water bottles tucked next to the trail, leave them. They are left by the runners while heading up to grab and use while coming down.

Left: A close up of Mt. Rainier

You will also likely run into many big, friendly dogs. Dogs are welcome on Mt. Si and, although officially they are supposed to be on leash, most are so friendly and well behaved that their owners let them loose to blaze the trail.


Go when it’s been dry for a few days (yes, that happens). Mt. Si is a steep hike in places, and can be treacherous when muddy.

Above: Looking west toward Seattle

Wear sturdy boots. Although the trail is very well maintained, it is an eight-mile hike with a healthy incline. Also, the last stretch to the top is a rock scramble.

Go early in the morning and/or on a weekday. This is a VERY popular hike. If you start after 8am on a sunny weekend day, you could find yourself in a glory train of fellow hikers. Also, if it is going to be warm, you don’t want to be hiking up in the heat of the day.

Don’t forget food and water! Make sure to bring a knapsack with the basics, including lots of water, a hearty sandwich, and something to snack on, on the way up.

Bring your camera. The views really are breathtaking, and fellow hikers will be happy to take a “victory shot” of you at the top.


From Seattle, drive east on I-90 to Exit 32. Turn left on 468th Avenue and drive to North Bend Way. Turn left and drive to Mount Si Road. Turn right and drive 4 miles to the trailhead on the left.


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Monday, January 08, 2007

A Day (or so) In: The Pike Place Market

Note: This post is the first of an intermittent series focused on experiencing the full and authentic flavor of specific Seattle neighborhoods. What to do and see, where to eat and drink, and other details are organized in itinerary form, with an eye to keeping it affordable.

Granted, the Pike Place Market is not a neighborhood, officially, but it certainly should be. The Market is the epicenter of Seattle for tourists and residents alike. Perched in a stellar setting over Elliott Bay in downtown, it is central to all of the city. Just about everything one would need for daily living is found in this historic, patinaed landmark. Produce and flower stalls, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, breweries, cheese makers, and ethnic grocers abound (as do local craft stalls and the more generic souvenir shops). There are restaurants, shops, services, and apartments. There is even a health clinic, a senior center and a daycare facility in the greater, 12+ block labyrinth of the Market.

Checking in: There are two places to consider staying at the Market. For those traveling on the proverbial shoe string, the HI-Seattle Hostel is a real bargain. This clean, and secure hostel is right in the lower part of the Market and dorm beds start at $25 per night. For those with more leeway in their budget, the bed and breakfast, Pension Nichols, offers the best value for ambience, location and amenities. (It is also, by the way, pet friendly!) Rooms start at $120 per night for double occupancy.

Start your day at the Market with a hearty oatmeal or egg-&-bacon breakfast at the Soundview Café. It is a cafeteria-style diner with one of the best views in town. A counter seat at the west wall proffers a sweeping vista of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains (on sunny days). This place is frequented by locals, and the café even has an area for folks bringing their own brown bag meals.

Then, walk all the calories off by exploring the main drag of the Market, Pike Place, and the adjacent walking street, Post Alley. Take pictures, listen to buskers (there is a fabulous A-cappella singing group that is often in front of the original Starbuck’s shop), take in the stunning view from Victor Steinbrueck Park at the north end of the market, and do a whole lot of tasting and window shopping. Some of my favorite haunts include: Sur La Table (the original shop), The Souk, DeLaurenti, Metsker Maps, Left Bank Books, Market Spice, and Raven’s Nest.

On a nice day, shopping for picnic groceries for lunch at the park is a fun option. If you do, check out Beecher’s Cheese and the deli counter at DeLaurenti’s for some nice additions to your basket. If the weather is less than accommodating, there is a myriad of small lunch spots and take out counters to choose from. You can find humbow to yeeros, piroshky to pizza. These are your most affordable options. For great food and ambience at reasonable (but not cheap) prices, try Maximilien Bistro for GREAT salads and french onion soup or, Matt’s in the Market for fabulous seafood. During tourist season, you may need a reservation for either.

Fueled up again, now head “Downunder” to the lower levels of the Market. You will find a playground of unique, kitchy shops, like Market Magic, F & J Great Western Trading Co., and Holy Cow Records. Let yourself get lost in the maze of shops. Any shopkeeper will help you find your way out.

For dinner, head to the bar at the Pink Door. This whimsical, romantic little Italian joint is a favorite place for Seattlites to meet up with friends. If it is summer, try to snag a table on the patio. Their antipasti menu is very reasonable as is their house wine. For a treat, try their blue martini called “Parfait Amore”. Later in the evenings there is usually live music and sometimes a fabulous cabaret.

If you want to keep going, just across Post Alley from the Pink Door is Kells, an Irish (surprise-surprise) restaurant and pub that also has live music on the weekends.

And if you want to keep going in the wee hours, Le Pichet stays open until 2am, serving French Bistro fare, good espresso and wine.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day Trippin' 101

Here's a tasting of the smorgasbord of day trips accessible from Seattle. It is just a sampling, with ideas for a variety of settings. Each of these outings is a full day except for Snoqualmie Falls which can be a 1/2 day excursion.

Mount Rainier is the largest mountain in the state and is a gorgeous national park. It is about a two-hour drive from Seattle.

Skagit Valley & the town of La Conner are about an hour north of Seattle. The valley is one of the richest areas of farmland in the country and all kinds of flowers are grown there (although most will be past their bloom season in late May). The town of La Conner is a farming and fishing town that is also very pretty. There is interesting shopping and good food there. The Museum of Northwest Art, in La Conner, is a great showcase of the northwest style of contemporary art and craft: .
Mt. Pilchuck is just east of the Skagit Valley, with great hikes in the park: and Pilchuck Glass School.

Whidbey Island, is about 1 1/2 hour away, including a great 1/2 hour ferry ride across Puget sound. The town of Langley is very picturesque and Ebey's Landing is a great walk both over and along a beautiful beach.

(Above: The Ebey Landing walk)

Snoqualmie Falls and Salish lodge are about 45 minutes east of Seattle, toward the Cascade Mountains, in farm country. The falls are quite dramatic. The lounge in the lodge offers a fabulous view of the falls and surrounding countryside.

Tacoma is about an hour south of Seattle. Things to see there include: The Museum of Glass, founded by Dale Chihuly, the Tacoma Art Museum (which I think has a better, albeit smaller, collection than the Seattle Art Museum), and Point Defiance Park which has a great 5-mile loop drive as well as many trails and great views of, and access to the beaches on, Puget Sound.

Although this list just scratches the surface, it is a great place to start.

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