On the Culture Front: Four Days in Seattle and the San Juan Islands

On the Culture Front: Four Days in Seattle and the San Juan Islands
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When I went out to Seattle to profile Dan Savage for the Financial Times last year, I decided to stay a few extra days to explore a city that has long intrigued me. I first became aware of it as a young kid listening to grunge bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and then through watching “Frasier.” What I found is a beautifully lush city with an abundance of good beer, food, and more than a little nature.

I started my explorations near the Space Needle, which is like a one-stop-shop for tourist attractions. In addition to the famous lookout point, the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly called Experience Music Project) and Chihuly Garden and Glass are both must-sees. The former is an eye-catching building, wildly designed by Frank Gehry. It reminded me of the excitement I had during my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame more than a decade ago. The exhibit, “Nirvana: Taking Punk to the Masses” was a particular highlight at MoPOP, featuring an array of unique memorabilia including banged up guitars Kurt Cobain played and some of his most iconic t-shirts.

I hadn’t heard of Dale Chihuly before I walked inside his namesake museum, but the Seattle-based artist instantly blew me away with large-scale glass sculptures that are at once beautiful and menacing. Some rooms hold only a single work that stretches out in epic fashion winding through many colors and evoking a shift in consciousness. I’ve never done acid, but it feels like how friends have described a trip. There are moments where your gaze is locked in, and you feel yourself being absorbed by the art. For one of the most mainstream attractions in Seattle, it’s pretty subversive.

With access to an abundance of fresh meats, fish and produce, it’s easy to find great food like Pike Place Chowder nearby the famous fish market. I could glimpse a view from my room at the ideally located Four Seasons. Though I only stayed here one night, the rain shower was nothing less than restorative. The hotel is also across the street from the Seattle Art Museum, which was exhibiting a collection of inventive portraits by contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley. The lavishly framed large-scale paintings give an aristocratic treatment to black men in street clothes. On the surface, it’s an aesthetically pleasing explosion of vibrant color, but it also calls us to examine what and whom we celebrate and lionize in our culture.

From the Four Seasons, I was picked up to go on an intimate brewery tour with Road Dogs. With countless places to choose from, our guide decided to focus on the industrial district, which is just south of downtown. During our afternoon, we hit up three places: Georgetown, Counterbalance and Seapine. The first featured a standard array of hop forward beers including my favorite, Bodhizafa. The IPA clocked in at 6.9% ABV and contains four pounds of hops per barrel. The highlight of the second stop was a Barrel Aged IPA. While it was slightly less potent by numbers than the Bodhizafa, it had a richness that reverberated in my taste buds long after it was quaffed. The final spot displayed a copy of the parody picture book “Goodnight Brew” on top of a shelf of growlers. In addition to IPAs, they had a peach gose, which melds a deceptively light body with a pungent sourness that makes sipping a wise option.

On the food front, the offerings are equally diverse. Highlights include the classic spot Dahlia Lounge, which fuses Asian influences into the local Pacific Northwest cuisine. Plates like Dungeness crab cakes with cilantro cream and blueberries and rotisserie pekin duck with crunchy rice salad are as good as they sound. The classic bistro atmosphere is elegantly inviting, and it’s location next to my second hotel, The Kimpton Palladian, is situated in the heart of Belltown. The hotel exudes a hipster aristocratic vibe with regal portraits of pop culture icons like David Bowie. Originally a mariners lodge when it opened in 1910, it has an intimate and clubby atmosphere the feels both cozy and exclusive. Like most Kimptons, it also features a killer restaurant, Shaker and Spear, which features fine dining takes on fresh seafood. Charred octopus is served with a hazelnut romanesco while rock shrimp come with squid ink potato gnocchi.

I had the best oysters of my life at Westward: Judd Cove, Treasure Cove, Eld Inlet, Hama Hama, and Olympia. I had only heard of the last one previously but all were insanely delicious. Judd Cove are from Orcas, Island in the San Juan Islands where I spent a blissful day.

Flying on a tiny seaplane operated by Kenmore Air, it takes less than an hour to get to Friday Harbor from Lake Union. Upon arrival, the weather is decidedly crisp and even more so when I hop in a kayak. With the help of my guide from Discovery Sea Kayaks, I paddle up the coast of San Juan National Historical Park amidst crashing waves. Gorgeous tree-lined islands of varying sizes surround us. There’s a special tranquility to the area during off-season and on this particularly day in mid-March, we have the waters to ourselves. When I disembarked to hike the Bell Point Trail, a wooded path through both towering and mangled trees, the landscape was equally sparse. One surprise along the way was the tiny structure of the San Juan Island Distillery, which makes a dozen gins in a copper still as well as small batch dry ciders - as clean and crisp as the air on the island. One of the workers, Kari, makes her own small-batch bitters dubbed “island elixers.” Distinctive flavors like “hop citrus” and “ginger peppercorn” mix exceedingly well into cocktails.

Despite feeling your in the last frontier, there’s a lot of refinement in the San Juan Islands, so it’s not surprising that I happened upon an Ai Weiwei exhibit at the postage-sized San Juan Museum of Art. The exhibit, “Fault Line,” is a minimalist work combining sculpture and video to explore the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake that killed over 60,000 people. A quote from the artist stuck out to me: “The biggest crime of a dictatorship is to eradicate human feelings from people.”

For my final meal in Seattle, I indulged in the decadent tasting menu at Tilth, Maria Hines’ charming restaurant tucked into a cute cottage. The James Beard award-winning chef has a knack for fusing simplicity with refinement. Each bite from eight-course feast feels necessary and ingeniously imagined. Farm-to-table is an overused descriptor, but it feels particularly apt at this Mecca for fresh ingredients. The only items on the menu not certified organic are wild salt and garlic for which classification would be impossible. In many ways, the restaurant encapsulates the spirit of this great city: refined yet warmly casual and heightened by the abundant raw nature that surrounds.

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