Travel

Tale of Two Cities

Striking scenery, art that raises the bar, and local producers who are ahead of the game. Washington’s Puget Sound region is a visual and sensory treat, with two essential city must-sees just a hop and a skip from Seattle

 By Cheryl Caira

Pretty, gritty Tacoma

I keep being told I’m lucky. As I arrive into the second largest city on the Puget Sound, the sun shimmers softly over Downtown’s Pacific Avenue, a busy thoroughfare of zooming streetcars and trendy-looking shops and eateries. The rain has been teeming down for the past week, but the Pacific Northwest’s famous showers seem to have simmered down for today. In the distance, I catch my first glimpse of snow-topped Mount Rainier, the highest mountain in the Cascades and a stunning emblem for the state.

Downtown Tacoma has a bit of quirk to it. The city feels a bit like Seattle’s rebellious younger sibling – the two locations share a historic rivalry. Tacoma might not have the seductive fame of its portside counterpart, but where there are students and liberal arts (the University of Washington Tacoma was established here in 1990) follows new talent and a burgeoning arts scene.

The city used to have a reputation for high crime rates, but things have changed dramatically since the downtown area was regenerated in the nineties, and it now boasts some of the top cultural institutions in the state. Tacoma’s industrial grit has made way for creative character, and artists who can no longer afford to live in Seattle are now making the move to the ‘City of Destiny,’ as it was monikered in the late 19th century, to collaborate and set up shop.

Walk with me

‘Monarch Window’ flowers

If Tacoma’s downtown is your landing point, then you have a wealth of city highlights within easy walking distance. Exploration requires fuel, so I interpret this in my own way and start off with a beer flight, consisting of five different local samplers at Pacific Avenue’s Harmon Brewery and Eatery (harmonbrewingco.com). My lunch choice of chilli, made with the brewery’s own Puget Sound Porter, is also pretty tasty.

The craft beer scene in Washington is well-established, and the state has arguably the most inventive microbreweries in the country – particularly if you’re an IPA fan, as the climate is ideal for growing hops. Harmon has their own 10-barrel microbrewery, so you’d be pushed not to find one of their in-house or rotating local brews to your liking.

Wandering up Pacific Avenue, there are a range of speciality shops, fashion and otherwise. I feel particularly drawn to Tinkertopia’s catchy signage (tinkertopia.com). The shop offers up reusable materials for keen tinkerers – so think zips, spoons, mirrors, buttons, beanbags… basically every object imaginable. You can fill up a bag of unusual items to tinker with later, or drop into the ‘TinkerSpace’ to start forming your creation. It’s a veritable treasure trove for the environmentally-conscious crafter.

Once you get closer to the port, you’ll be treated to some of the eye-boggling exhibits and installations that have sealed Tacoma’s status as the centre of the modern glass art movement. Tacoma-born and now world-famous sculptor, Dale Chihuly, took glassblowing large-scale, and the most sought after attraction in the city is the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot-long pedestrian overpass with three installations to keep you occupied. There’s the trippy ‘Seaform Pavilion’ ceiling of underwater shapes, the totem-like ‘Crystal Towers’, and finally the ‘Venetian Wall’, an otherworldly display of 109 illuminated sculptures from three of the artist’s series.

The Chihuly Bridge

The glass-themed wonderment doesn’t stop there. The former Union Station building, now the federal courthouse, has more Chihuly pieces on show, and it’s worth nipping in with your ID to see the mammoth ‘End of the Day Chandelier’ and the ‘Monarch Window’ of clambering flowers.

After admiring the nearby Museum of Glass’s (museumofglass.org) modernist stainless steel exterior for a while, I head into the museum’s Hot Shop to see some fiery, live glassblowing. Visiting master Lino Tagliapietra is turning molten glass into art, and it’s a mesmerising experience seeing it all up close.

A stop off at the very chilled Anthem Coffee and Tea (myanthemcoffee.com) sees me discover a Paradox nitro cold brew, the local artisan caffeine du jour. It looks like a foamy pint but tastes delicious, and is naturally slightly sweeter than hot coffee.

Trinket hunt

Energy levels topped up, I make time to check out Tacoma Art Museum (tacomaartmuseum.org), which puts the spotlight on artists from the Northwest. I manage to catch the critically-acclaimed ’30 Americans’ – an exhibition featuring a group of leading African American artists on the US contemporary art scene.

Walking for around 15 minutes towards the Theatre District, you come to the brightly coloured walls and murals of Opera Alley. After that, it’s time to delve into the curiosities heaven of Antique Row on Broadway. It’s the place to spend many happy hours climbing into various nooks and crannies, peeping at things you cannot fathom and wishing you had a bigger house. I settle on a jaunty little elephant from the stacked and eccentric Brandy’s Attic, but there are numerous other shops to get lost in for the afternoon.

It isn’t all about the old, though. Descending the stairs of the cavernous Sanford and Son Antiques, set across three floors, I discover lingerie boutique Love Letters Intimates (lovelettersintimates.com) and owner Catrina Hall. The store is one of several young businesses that have moved into the building over the last few years. Chatting about the city as a growing magnet for creatives and emerging labels, Catrina’s take seems to sum it up perfectly: “If Kurt Cobain were alive today, he probably would have lived in Tacoma.”

Home of the Gods

Visiting a state capital for the first time is always an intriguing prospect, especially one as unassuming as Olympia. The handsome, laid-back city sits nestled into the Budd Inlet at the southern end of Puget Sound, with Mount Rainier and the Olympic Mountains edged across the skyline amidst swathes of green.

Olympia has that nice feeling of non-pretentious grandeur. Maybe it’s because of the reassuring presence of the landmark Capitol building surveying the city, a picture postcard scene if you catch it in the right weather, which I have. Lady Luck seems to have favoured me again as I stand at the water’s edge, watching a raft of ducks glide across Capitol Lake towards the home of the Washington state government. You can tour the building if you so fancy – it’s the tallest masonry dome in North America and the fifth tallest in the world.

Keep exploring the waterfront and you’ll find Percival Landing, a public park and hubbub of masts and boating activity which make for some great nautical people-watching. You’ll also want to keep your eyes peeled for the boardwalk’s non-human visitors… there are often seals larking around and poking their whiskery faces out of the water, and if you look even closer, you’ll spy some loitering jellyfish gleaming in the deep.

Eat, drink, shop

All this walking and peering is making me hungry, so it’s handy that the Olympia Farmers Market (olympiafarmersmarket.com) is nearby, one of the most diverse and long-standing markets in Washington. The area has a strong community of makers, small-scale growers and artisan producers, and Olympia’s residents are passionate about maintaining the ‘buy local’ ethos and keeping food and drink top-notch.

Olympia Farmers Market

There is a bounty of organic and seasonal tastiness to peruse, alongside craft stalls filled with vibrant textiles, lavender, beeswax candles and elaborate glassware. You can also nibble on and purchase speciality foods including the moreish Chehalis Mints, made of gourmet chocolate, smoked meats, fish, jam, cheese and OlyKraut, a company selling hand-crafted sauerkrauts in original guises including Spring Nettle and Cumin Jalapeño.

Any culinary craving would be sated by the restaurants lining the market – Japanese, Mexican and German is just a swatch – but I’m leaning towards Greek, so I opt for a “Classic Gyro” from Pithos Gyros: a flavourful, warm pitta stuffed with specially seasoned beef and lamb, salad, feta, and tzatziki.

Feeling refreshed enough to tempt myself with some retail, I head over to Capitol Way to check out the shops. Some of the highlights: Compass Rose (compassroseolympia.com), a gift shop of jewellery, books and bits for the home which you essentially would rather gift to yourself, and the wacky, brilliant, Archibald Sisters (archibaldsisters.com), where you can choose from over 150 fragrances and design your own hand and body lotion.

In a city full of superb small-batch makers, it’s hard to settle on just one place to eat or drink, but downtown’s Three Magnets Brewing Company (threemagnetsbrewing.com) is doing some stellar innovating in its microbrewery, producing clean and award-winning quality beers. Tip: the blue cheese, mushroom and mustard burger goes incredibly well with the citrus and tropical fruit taste of the Eastside Pale Ale. 

Seeing as we’re in a region known for its exceptional coffee, I have to drop into Olympia Coffee Roasting Co (olympiacoffee.com). Their downtown ‘lab’ offers public coffee cupping sessions, where you can taste different varietals and develop your palate. The roaster and coffee bar has direct trade partnerships with their coffee farmers, enabling them to nurture quality production, bring home the best beans and serve some of the finest, fairly traded coffee you’ll ever taste.

Victorian digs

The lovely Swantown Inn Bed and Breakfast (swantowninn.com) is one of the few remaining examples of its architectural kind in Olympia – a listed 1887 Queen Anne/Eastlake Victorian Mansion in a tranquil neighbourhood not far from the city centre. The décor has been carefully reimagined with vintage touches that are in keeping with the building’s history – the welcoming Astoria Room is a perfect example, with its luxurious four poster King Bed, lounge chairs to read in by the fireplace, and one of those desks where you imagine writing unrequited love letters with a fountain pen. Owners Nathan and Casey Allan are friendly, helpful and cook up a mean breakfast – I ate two scones, a fruit sorbet and a marionberry and cream cheese-stuffed croissant in one sitting. The Inn also has a spa upstairs with fantastic therapists, so if you’re looking for some relaxation and TLC, it comes recommended. The Signature Massage is a relaxed full hour treatment, and I definitely felt more in holiday mode afterwards.

Seattle to Tacoma by car takes around 45 minutes, and from Seattle to Olympia, around an hour and 10 minutes.

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