SEATTLE — My online hunt for a downtown hotel was quickly fogged by the homogenous blur of boasted boutique amenities. I was stuck in place as hotel after hotel promised “state-of-the-art” treadmills.
Then I stumbled upon two daily offerings by the Alexis Kimpton:
Complimentary wine hour.
The wine was fun enough, with quality budget offerings from Washington State. The bicycles made us savor the wine even more.
Seattle has sped into the vanguard of US cities trying to make cycling a major part of city life. Its 4.1 percentage of commuters who bike to work still pales next to European standard-bearers Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but in the United States, it is tied for third highest in the nation behind the 6.1 percent in Portland, Ore., and the 4.5 percent in Minneapolis. As popular as biking is becoming in Boston, the city at the other end of Interstate 90 doubles us in bike commuting percentages, according to federal data.
Similar to Boston, Seattle has an ambitious master plan to promote European levels of cycling, and, like Boston, it is one of six new cities being given $250,000 in consulting from the PeopleforBikes’ Green Lane Project to accelerate the building of cycle track. “Our success,” said Sam Woods, head of bicycle and pedestrian programs, “will be measured if we see seniors and children riding every day.”
And perhaps tourists as well. Currently spending between $6 million and $7 million a year on bike infrastructure, Seattle’s existing facilities are already on their way to being as enticing for visitors as the bike and pedestrian paths along Chicago’s lakefront and San Francisco’s wharves and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Kristin Simpson, the implementation manager of the biking and pedestrian master plan, said, “Tourists getting out on bikes would be a great side benefit from our efforts to connect vibrant neighborhood districts.”
On our trip, we took the bikes down to the waterfront, where a protected bike and pedestrian path went past oyster and clam restaurants, the city’s aquarium, and an arcade that features one of the biggest Ferris wheels in the United States. We rode northward through a series of parks where the view opened up dramatically on a sun-washed November Monday. Just about everyone we met told us how we lucked out at a time of year when raw, damp grayness is generally settling in for the long haul of winter.
The snow-capped Olympic range rimmed the horizon behind Puget Sound. It was hard to keep your eyes focused straight ahead amid an ever-changing flotilla of sounds of ferries, fishing boats, freighters, and barges. It was a working regatta, and the more we looked, the bigger the vessels seemed to become.
I had found out how big they were on a prior visit when I rented a kayak in Lake Union and headed halfway up the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the port channel leading out to the Pacific. There is nothing like paddling up to a Russian or Asian trawler or cargo ship. An ant could not have felt smaller. And, baby, can those behemoths move! A moment of lazy paddling was shattered by the bullhorn of a barge captain to get me out of his way. A slab the length of a football field passed me in seconds.
Back to the bike ride. The path curled around a train yard that gave us an intimate appreciation of the power of the brightly-painted engines and the infinte length of the cars. Somewhere in one of those cars was a product from Asia destined for a mall rack in Boston.
We emerged from the rail yard out into a marine terminal, where a fleet of fishing boats was at rest. After four miles of pedaling, we entered Smith Cove Park, were we sat on a bench with a snack and enjoyed a grand view back toward the city, now additionally framed by 14,000-foot Mount Rainier and the booming cranes for cargo containers.
We made our way back the way we came, with the 1962 World’s Fair Space Needle as our compass. As we came close to the Needle, we took a beautiful bridge finished just weeks before our arrival for pedestrians and cyclists to get them from the shore park up and over the rail tracks and into one of those vibrant neighborhood districts, Queen Anne. We walked our bikes up a steep hill past handsome homes and then rode on side streets that were quiet in the midday.
If planners have their way, bike tourists in the coming years will be able to ring all of Lake Union, home of the houseboats made famous in the movie “Sleepless in Seattle,” and the giant trawlers and barges in the ship canal that I barely avoided. They will be able to pedal through many other miles of parkland, neighborhoods, and the University of Washington.
On this day, our destination was the Seattle Center, home to the Needle, the Seattle Music Experience, and Chihuly Garden and Glass. We had taken in the spectacular view from the Needle on a prior trip so it was down to the Music Experience or Chihuly. I appreciate the blues licks of local and global psychedelic rock icon Jimi Hendrix, but our ride had us in a mellow mood. So we opted for Chihuly.
Mellow was not what we found. What Hendrix was to a guitar, Chihuly is to glass. The museum was nothing short of mind blowing, with plenty of purple haze. Dale Chihuly, another area product from Tacoma, studied the art of blowing glass from the University of Wisconsin and the Rhode Island School of Design to Venice and Finland.
It is not the kind of art that appeals to everybody. Some of his fantastical glass renditions of forest, Venice boats and flowers, and his scalloped bowls are over the top of the Space Needle itself. But being a hiker, my mind left my body and started walking in and around his glowing trees, branches, and hills of orange, red, purple, green, blue, and yellow. I doubt he could spell pastel if you spotted him the the P, the A, the S, and the T.
We had a very pleasant lunch in the gallery cafe, highlighted by a grilled Pacific octopus appetizer, and surrounded by more of Chihuly’s glass. We rode and walked our bikes back down toward the shore. Before we made our final descent to the bike trail we took in the panorama from the bridge over the rail tracks. Gulls dipped and dived over the glistening water. Ships crisscrossed the water. Below, there were many more cyclists than when we started out as schools closed and offices let out. For the fortunate, this has to be one of America’s most spectacular commutes.
We wound our way by the Public Market, where the second-most difficult choice of the day was which fish stand had the best looking chunk of smoked salmon to take back to the room with a loaf of sourdough bread.
(At one of these stands on a visit in the late 1990s, a fishmonger had shouted at me, “What’s your favorite football team?”
I said the Green Bay Packers. He said, “Who’s their best quarterback and receiver?” I said Brett Favre and Antonio Freeman. He picked up a massive, whole, slippery salmon, palmed it like a football, and screamed to another salesman, “Favre to Freeman!” The salmon sailed over the fish stand to his buddy. Touchdown! Everyone at the stand applauded.)
The most difficult choice was wine. A store specializing in Washington state wines I had never heard of was like being in a candy store. Being ignorant of which ones were the best for the money, I let the manager pick out some bottles I will never see in Boston, turning me into a fan of good Washington state syrah.
We returned to the Alexis in time for its wine hour. In a feature last year on top boutique hotels, Wallpaper magazine said guests are no longer impressed by just a “marbled lobby, a conference room, and a concierge.”
The piece quoted Christian Malcher, global director of sales and marketing of the Design Hotels group in Berlin as saying, “A hotel needs to be connected to its environment and be able to guarantee that each guest has the right experience, not only in the hotel, but also in the neighborhood.”
All it took for the Alexis to connect Michelle and me to Seattle’s environment were those two bikes.