When the sun shines on Seattle

From city adventures to wildness explorations, summer is the time to visit the Pacific Northwest

You know how the Seattle area has a reputation for ever-present gloomy, gray skies? Let me tell you a summertime secret — the clouds go on vacation and the region soaks in sunshine starting in June. Even so, temperatures stay well below those in Texas, making the northwest corner of the contiguous United States a fantastic heat-wave escape.

Several airlines fly directly from Austin to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and several others stop once along the way. Either way, get ready for a long flight and a two-hour time change.

Now, prepare for your toughest travel task in this coastal city: selecting a place to call home. Seattle is known as “a city of neighborhoods,” and each has its own charm and character.

We only had two nights in Seattle proper, as we’d also planned to spend time boating and camping. To make the most of our time in town, we chose a hotel near the Lower Queen Anne neighborhood, well within walking distance to the iconic Pike Place Market, the Space Needle and dozens of shops and restaurants.

And pack it in we did. After a delayed flight sucked up most of our daylight, we arrived at night and managed to squeeze in a stroll along the harbor. The fresh, salty air was refreshing and welcoming, and the bar at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel Seattle served scrumptious snacks until 11 p.m.

The next day we were eager to see Seattle’s sights – and make it to the Seattle Mariners’ evening baseball game for the first pitch. After a short walk, we looked up to see the red art deco-style lettering marking the entry to Pike Place Market, which opened in 1907.

Established to eliminate the middleman between producers and consumers, the 9-acre permanent market is among the oldest continuously operated markets in the country and attracts about 10 million visitors annually.

Even claustrophobic tourists can appreciate the chaotic center of commerce’s charms – the fishermen proudly torpedoing their prize catches across crowds, the leather craftsman who really wants you to feel how soft this bag is, the florist whose colorful and fragrant bushels attract swarms of hungry bees.

The market is built on several levels, so if you have a particular interest — say Indian spices, produce or handmade crafts — research and plan accordingly.

At the original Starbucks at 1912 Pike Place, you’re sure to find a horde of people likely watching street musicians play near the door as gleeful tourists gripping cups of caffeine stream out. A few blocks away is an even tastier flagship, the home of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at 1600 Pike Place, where scrumptious samples of their famous cheddar await. While there’s usually a line for their deli counter, there likely won’t be one for cheese-only customers.

Hungry and ready to sit for a while? Stroll to Etta’s, a casual seafood restaurant away from the fray but prime for people-watching opportunities, across the street from Victor Steinbrueck Park. You’ll come for the drool-worthy signature spice-rubbed salmon, stay through the cornbread pudding and refuse to leave before the dreamy coconut cream pie.

Walk or get a ride to the Seattle Center, home of the long-term exhibition, Chihuly Garden and Glass. A treasure trove of eye-candy, the exhibition is located in the shadow of the Space Needle. The $25 admission charge is money well spent for those who admire the work of Dale Chihuly, a glass artist from Tacoma whose name has come to represent his whimsical, bold, recognizable chandeliers.

Chihuly’s colorful creations fill grandiose galleries, adorn the ceiling of a 4,500-square-foot glass house and accessorize an expansive garden.

After your glass-quota is full, follow signs to the nearby Olympic Sculpture Park, a stunning green space adorned with about a dozen thought-provoking sculptures. Operated by the Seattle Art Museum, the park is free.

If baseball interests you, catch a Mariners’ evening game, where you’ll watch the golden hour light up the skyline and the sun slowly melt into the Pacific Ocean.

After dreaming of peanuts and Cracker Jack, we awoke with the sun and headed out of town, but only after a stop by Macrina Bakery — there are three locations around town. A feast for the eyes and the tummy, you can’t go wrong with an assortment of tasty pastries like an apple turnover, an Italian plum roll or the sugar bun.

A true treat awaited us on Whidbey Island, a drive and a ferry ride away, where friends had invited us on their newly acquired motor yacht. Here and on the San Juan Islands, fleets of leisure boaters pass by arcing porpoises and soaring bald eagles, heading to places like Friday Harbor, where dozens of vessels drop anchor or dock for the night. With no traffic lights or chain businesses, towns on the islands are quaint but adequately stocked with commerce and breathtakingly beautiful.

To recover from our sea legs, we headed next to Olympic Peninsula, encompassed mostly by the nearly 1-million-acre Olympic National Park. It’s hard to describe this behemoth preservation, home to three vastly different ecosystems, a good portion of the animal kingdom and endless places to explore. Plenty of trails are inaccessible before June and after September, so the park is understandably popular when the sun’s out. Campground spaces are on a first-come, first-served basis, and campgrounds do fill up, especially on weekends. For the uber-adventurous, pick up a backcountry camping pass for $5 a night and backpack your way through the park.

With so much space, hikers may still find themselves alone on trails, and with good planning and some flexibility, claiming a campsite can be a cinch. We packed an extra suitcase with camping gear, but anyone in need could easily swing by the REI Seattle flagship store.

Eager to take in the views of the majestic Mount Olympus and its neighbors in the Olympic Mountains, we headed up to Deer Park — a campground perched at 5,400 feet elevation. We figured it wouldn’t be hard to find a campsite, since Deer Park has no running water or space for recreational vehicles. Thanks to a grocery run in nearby Sequim, we didn’t go thirsty.

Once you’ve picked a site, swing by the campground’s bulletin board to pay your camping fee, which varies at campgrounds from $10 to $18, and the park entry fee of $20 per vehicle, good for one week.

Two trails lead hikers up, or down, the ridge, riddled with black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, birds galore and spectacular views. For best results, seek a peak to watch the sun rise or fall.

Next we headed to the Hoh Rainforest, a three-hour drive from Deer Park in an ecosystem that felt much farther away from the mountains. One of the largest campgrounds at Olympic National Park, sites there were surprisingly difficult to find, our first hint that the rainforest is ridiculously popular.

Still, we found a peaceful, soft spot nestled among ferns and moss-covered trees to pitch our tent. I swear I heard a deer snorting and chomping on grass in the early morning.

The trails in the rainforest — specifically, the aptly-named Hall of Mosses and Spruce Nature Trail — are fairly flat, easy to traverse and stunning … and crowded. Still, just about anyone can traverse the two loops, which together measure about 2 miles.

For those seeking more of a workout, find the trailhead for the Hoh River Trail, which snakes through lush green forests along the snow melt-fed river, and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.

Founded as a national monument in 1909 and as a national park in 1938, Olympic continues to acquire land and expand, and offers lovers of the outdoors endless opportunities.

Our adventurous sides appeased, we left Olympic National Park with plans to return and discover more, like the miles of coastline that comprise the park’s third ecosystem. Just not in the fall, winter or spring.

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