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Pacific Northwest - Rachel Knight
Pacific Northwest - Rachel Knight
Posted at: 8:57am , 14 Jul 2020 By James Eacott

Pacific Northwest - Rachel Knight

Our journey to the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Vancouver Island in August/September 2019 was a holiday, on my part to revisit an area that was home to me over 20 years ago. My partner had visited Vancouver Island many years ago on a road trip.

We flew into Seattle - a very easy direct flight from Heathrow, arriving on a warm, sunny day in August. Seattle is known for its rainfall - on average it rains on about 150 days of the year, but not often very heavily. Even when it does the region is really beautiful so that shouldn’t put anyone off! Our accommodation for the first few nights of the stay was in a district north of the city, called Fremont. Picking up a hire car at the airport was straightforward and a free upgrade meant a brand new Jeep Cherokee became our mode of transport for the holiday (they had run out of the category we had booked!)

Fremont is a district full of arty types and quirky people which appealed to us. There was something of the Stokes Croft area of Bristol about it! Well worth a visit anyway to see the famous troll under the bridge or visit any of the numerous coffee establishments so famous in Seattle (Starbucks originated in Seattle, though this is the main one to be avoided! So many great, interesting, independent ones - why would you!!?)

Our first few days, heavily jet-lagged so early starts, were an opportunity to get a feel for the city. We took a local bus in to the centre (I wouldn’t recommend driving and parking there!) having spent our first morning walking around Queen Anne - another great district, quite different to Fremont. Some splendid houses with views to the Space Needle and across Puget Sound towards the Pacific.

I’d been up the Space Needle before so wasn’t bothered to do so again, but it’s probably the most famous landmark in the city, so will appeal to any first-time visitors. It is located at the Seattle Center, built in 1962 for the World’s Fair. From the Center there is a monorail into the city…an interesting ride and a good way to get in. In the centre, a must is a visit to Pike Place Market - made famous by the fish stall where customers are treated to a show of enormous fish being thrown across the stall - has to be seen to be believed! There are also magnificent flower stalls, local art and craft, many eateries and bars. It’s just a great place to soak up the atmosphere and people watch…ok a bit touristy!

Smith Tower in Pioneer Square is another landmark of the city. Once the tallest skyscraper outside New York City it is now dwarfed by its neighbours. It is a mere 38 storeys and 141m tall, built in 1914. Another city centre attraction is the underground tour - to learn more of the history of the city, its indigenous people and rise to what it is today.

There are numerous other things to do in the city and close by. It is the home of the airframe manufacturer, Boeing, and the factory at Everett just north of the city is well worth a visit. The factory is vast - the largest building in the world by volume, making the rows of enormous aircraft look like toys. The country’s biggest aviation and space museum is also in Seattle. 

In addition, there is art, ballet, opera, pop culture (Nirvana originated in Seattle), baseball, basketball, football, numerous parks and gardens, an arboretum, a zoo, an aquarium and some great walking and nature within a very short distance - either north and west across the water to some of the many islands and the Olympic Peninsula, or in any other direction into the Cascade Mountains which contain some famous volcanic peaks that - on a clear day - dominate the surrounds.

Mount Rainier, the nearest such volcano, towers over the city at 14,400 feet, the highest peak in Washington state and less than 100km away from the city. It is very much an active volcano although it last caused any trouble over 150 years ago. The more well-known Mount St Helens is a little further away, and famously and dramatically erupted in 1980 - within the memory of many of us. There are other volcanoes in the Cascades, notably Glacier Peak (also very near Seattle), Mount Baker on the Canadian border to the north and Mount Hood, to the south, just in to Oregon. All of these provide great walking environments, and closer to the city there are many other walking opportunities. Depending on the time of year of the visit, there are skiing facilities within an hour of the city and a tulip festival that is held just 80km to the north.

Heading South:
After 3 nights in Fremont we set off early one morning to drive down the I5 for a day’s hiking on Mount Rainier. Both keen walkers, we were hoping to find somewhere for this one opportunity in our busy schedule, and we headed for an area rather appealingly called Paradise, where there are numerous recommended trails. We were quite surprised how commercial this was, with a big visitor centre and paths that started with a bit too much tarmac for our liking. Clearly, the vast majority of visitors don’t venture more than a few hundred yards so the tarmac soon ran out and we were treated to some spectacular scenery and wildlife. Sadly, for this one walk the skies decided to fill with cloud and drizzle so the views were rather limited…oh well, you can’t have everything…and this is Washington State after all. There were still quite a few other pedestrians - more than we would have liked, however, it was good to have company when we encountered a black bear - ok a fair distance away, but I wouldn’t have liked to be too far from other human company at that point! There were also chipmunks, racoons and unusual birds and flowers around every corner, so it turned out to be a great walk. The visitor centre had lots of facilities and staff who were really informative too. Driving away from the area we stopped to walk another trail - the Trail of the Shadows - there was no-one about and lots of interesting and scenic surroundings, including evidence of beaver activity and hot mineral springs….and the rain had stopped! Driving on further away from Mount Rainier National Park and looking back at the domineering mountain, or course the skies had cleared and we were treated to a spectacular view. We stayed that night on a remote Christmas Tree farm on our way to Portland the following morning…

Continuing south on the I5 the temperature was hotting up and there were a few days of unusually high temperatures forecast. We left the freeway just as we approached the outskirts of Portland and headed east on the I84 to visit a viewpoint we had read about, called Vista House. The monument overlooks the vast Columbia River, separating Washington from Oregon. It was built 100 years ago to provide a break for those travelling through the Columbia River Gorge. It overlooks the Columbia River - an area steeped in history, when some of the first pioneers arrived in this northwest corner of the country, Lewis and Clark being the most notable. Leaving the viewpoint we headed for the deserted shores of the great river just below Vista House, where we could walk along the sand and paddle in the cool water. Then it was time to head into Portland, arriving just at rush hour!

Portland, Oregon:
We checked in to our hotel - a historic ballroom with a basement music venue and very quirky rooms in the Pearl district of the city. Temperatures were, indeed, soaring and even at the late hour it was quite uncomfortable to be out and about so we found an air-conditioned coffee shop then ate at a Deschutes Brewery, recommended to us by a local resident. The evening was rounded off by some level music in the basement of our hotel.

The next day we explored the famous Powells Bookshop just a block away and a vast empire of new and secondhand books and all paraphernalia around literature. It is the world’s largest independent bookstore. We decided to head for the shade of Washington Park - a vast area to explore, within which is a zoo, arboretum, Holocaust museum and rose garden (for which the city is famous). Later that day - looking for somewhere to eat, we went to a winery that had been recommended, involving another baking hot walk over the West Burnside Bridge to Coopers Hall - a fantastic, well-air conditioned winery set in a converted car workshop. The food and wine were superb. They only sell wine on tap to customers who bring their own containers - all very sustainable! We braced ourselves for another hot walk back to the hotel - still unbearably hot even at a fairly late hour.

The final place I would recommend in Portland is an area called Nob Hill. It’s mainly on one street to the north west of the centre, and has become a trendy area where lots of young people and families hang out visiting the numerous bars, restaurants, shops and cafes. We met some friends at an ice cream parlour called Salt and Straw - a very welcome relief from the heat!

The Olympic National Park:
The next morning we set off early, leaving Portland and heading back north up the I5. Before reaching Seattle we forked left to take us on to the Olympic National Park. This area of land is dominated by the 8000ft Mount Olympus and the logging industry - there’s not much else there, but the scenery is breathtaking. We drove for a good seven hours, stopping a couple of times to walk in the forest and then again to visit one of the fantastic beaches and dip our toes in the Pacific. The walk we did by Lake Quinault was fantastic - we were among trees of such immense proportions and hardly saw a soul. It was only on returning to the car park that we spotted the sign warning of bears in the area. Glad I hadn’t known that before!

Sadly the region had once been inhabited solely by native Americans, but - as with so many regions of the country (and so many other parts of the world) - European settlers have taken over and all that remains are a few Indian reservations “kindly” given to the past natives. This became quite a theme for the coming week as we travelled onwards. Our destination for the last night in the US for the time being was a little town called Sequim (pronounced Skwim). It was on the north coast facing Vancouver Island, a little way east of Port Angeles, from where we would catch the ferry to Victoria the following morning. It is a stunning setting overlooking the Salish Sea where there are regular sightings of Killer Whales and other sea life.

Vancouver Island:
The ferry trip to Victoria took an hour and a half and the scenery was spectacular. We didn’t see any Orcas or dolphins but apparently they are quite a common sight. Coming into Victoria harbour is always special. The setting is stunning with boats ranging from sailing dinghies to massive cruise ships in the harbour. Being the capital of British Columbia, there are impressive government buildings and the fabulous Fairmont Empress hotel stands in the centre. It has a rather colonial feel to it, with much of the architecture being Victorian (no coincidence!) When a cruise ship is in, the city feels quite busy and we didn’t hang around for long - just time for a quick stroll and a coffee then we left. We hadn’t bargained for the rush hour traffic so our journey north was slow. As we had both visited the city before it wasn’t somewhere we wanted to stay, but the many nearby tourist sights include the Butchart Gardens and Craigdarroch Castle Mansion.

We were heading for our next destination, a remote farmhouse near a town called Duncan - only meant to break up the journey to the west coast of the island. The area was stunning and we stayed with a couple who couldn’t have been more welcoming. They had built a lake in their extensive grounds, beside which we sat in the pitch dark watching owls and other wildlife, having come back from a pizza restaurant in Duncan. Only the following morning did we learn that the lake was regularly frequented by bears and cougars…

Onwards towards our next destination of Ucluelet, near Tofino on the west coast, still quite a drive away. We stopped for some lunch at a town called Port Alberni. The landscape was becoming quite wild, dominated by mountains and forests, and the rain started falling. We made a mental note that there was a salmon fishing festival in the town that would still be going on as we passed through on our return drive a few days later. A longish drive followed to Ucluelet which was to be our base for three nights. It was nice not to be packing up again for a while, and we stayed in a really beautiful guest-house in the small town. It felt like the town was on the way to being a bigger, more commercial place, but it still very much had the feel of a working fishing port, and had a significant population of young, surf-types, staying and working in the bars and coffee shops. We did some fabulous walks along the Pacific coast through forests and past remote tree trunk-strewn beaches. To add to the list of significant predators was wolves, so it did feel necessary to keep half an eye on the path beyond and behind as well as up in the trees where the cougars are known to hang from branches!

The rain rather dominated our stay in Ucluelet, but didn’t stop us exploring the beautiful scenery, or visiting nearby Tofino - a rather more established town. Again there was a great deal of evidence of the now largely absent forebears of the region, but their art and crafts could still be seen and bought in Tofino and there were Indian Settlements nearby. Seaplanes were in evidence everywhere along the coast, being the easiest way to travel between the small fishing towns and settlements. Of course, the sun returned on the morning we were leaving, giving us breathtaking views out to the Pacific as we did one final walk around the Ucluelet lighthouse with fog rolling in off the ocean.

Driving back to Port Alberni we remembered the salmon fishing festival and looked forward to another memorable experience on our travels. We mingled among the local fishermen and families, admiring the enormous fish that they had landed that were being weighed for the moment of glory the winner would enjoy…some were upward of 30lb! On stage was a local country singer, adding to the fantastic atmosphere, and the non-prizewinning fish were being broiled on the barbecue and sold for the most delicious lunch, served in a bread roll with a jacket potato and salad. I have never tasted salmon quite like it! And only $5 for a plateful!

San Juan Islands:
Then onwards back to a slightly less rural setting for our last night in Canada. We were ultimately heading for the ferry over to the San Juan Islands, officially back in the US but found in the waters between Vancouver city and Vancouver Island. Staying at the pretty town of Cowichan Bay ready for our morning ferry to Sidney then onwards to Friday Harbour, our home for the next two nights. The gentle pace of life on the island was lovely - we explored a bit, did some short walks, ate fish and chips and drank beer in a local bar, and the highlight was a boat trip to go whale spotting. We found a pod of orcas feeding off the shores of another small uninhabited island, and it was quite captivating to watch as they breached the water. The crew of the boat was made up of a number of young marine biologists, who were in equal measure both fantastically knowledgeable and wildly enthusiastic!

Back to the Mainland:
Our departure from the San Juan Islands involved a longer ferry ride back to Whidbey Island, now closer to mainland US, just north of Seattle. A drive south from our landing point was scenic and getting noticeably busier. We stopped for a break at Deception Pass - a spectacular bridge over a sea inlet leading down to a long sandy beach. One last car ferry took us back to the mainland, where we headed for my old hometown of Bellevue, also home to Microsoft and its numerous employees. I hadn’t visited since leaving Bellevue in 1998 and the place had noticeably grown and become alarmingly busy. We stayed with some friends, coincidentally one street away from my old home! 

Our final adventure came in a visit to an area just east of Bellevue an hour or so by car, called Rattlesnake Ridge (I don’t believe there had ever been rattlesnakes there, and once again, we were warned of the presence of bears in the area) It was once again a baking hot day, and we walked up the mountain overlooking a lake with spectacular views to the Cascade Mountains beyond. Along heavily wooded paths strewn with massive boulders the route came to a breathtaking viewpoint, with sharp drops back down to the lake. It was surprisingly crowded with other walkers, so we pushed on further upwards to another, and then another higher viewpoint - much more deserted!

Driving back to Bellevue, we stopped at a roadside diner for some delicious cherry pie and custard - just the thing for a baking hot day! One last attraction to visit was a spectacular waterfall at Snoqualmie. Back in the city we ate out for our last night before packing our suitcases for our trip home - a more convoluted one than planned thanks to industrial action by British Airways sending us on a detour via Dallas. It gave us one extra night in the US - we could have happily stayed for many more…

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