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Exploring the San Juan Islands by way of Spokane and Seattle

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published May 5, 2016

When you're traveling to Washington, your first stop is usually Seattle. That may change June 11, when Alaska Airlines introduces nonstop service from Anchorage to Spokane. It's just once per week on Saturdays right now. But for those folks who enjoy visiting the "Inland Empire" around Spokane and Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the new flight is a great option.

We love Seattle. But travelers should branch out and see more of the Evergreen State.

Spokane

The city of Spokane started in the latter half of the 19th century, fueled by mining, logging, forestry and agriculture. Since then, the city has emerged as a hub for education (Gonzaga University, Whitworth University and others), health care, rail transportation and aviation technology. Fairchild Air Force Base is adjacent to the airport and is the region's largest employer.

Jeff Phillips was a top executive at Carrs/Safeway in Anchorage before moving to Spokane, where he's the CEO of Rosauers Supermarkets. Phillips, who grew up in Great Falls, Montana, said moving to Spokane was like coming home. "We always used to come to Spokane when we were growing up, since it was the Big City," he said. Now, with 17 stores in four states, he has his finger on the pulse of the community.

"Spokane is a great place to retire," he said. "It's beautiful in the summer -- and winters aren't too harsh. There are miles of trails and we're close to winter sports and water sports. Plus, the public golf courses are very affordable," he added. We visited with several other Alaskans who have retired in the area, and they echoed Phillips' endorsement. Phillips is an enthusiastic community booster. As a scout leader, he lists all of the activities for his troop: camping in Hells Canyon, skiing at nearby Schweitzer Mountain Resort, fishing in one of the 76 lakes in the region -- there's even rock climbing in the city. Like many of the locals we met, he works in town but enjoys being close to nature.

I met Phillips in the lobby of the Historic Davenport Hotel, one of the city's landmarks. When the hotel was first built in 1914, it featured air conditioning, a pipe organ, the region's most opulent ballroom, crystal chandeliers -- the works. The hotel was closed in 1985, but developers Walt and Karen Worthy bought the hotel in 2000 and gave it a top-to-bottom renovation.

The Davenport is most distinctive of four Davenport hotels in the downtown area. Travelers come inside just to gaze at the handiwork: hand-painted frescoes, gold leaf around the fireplace and lots of ornate woodwork and marble. The owners weren't satisfied with any of the beds available, so they manufacture their own designs in Spokane. Guests can deduct the cost of their room from the price of one of the beds at the Davenport's Home Store in the lobby.

The standout natural landmark in Spokane is the falls along the Spokane River. The river flows through the middle of town and there's a great park that's built around it, Riverfront Park. This was the site of Expo 74, a world exhibition. As part of that project, there's a cable car that takes you right in front of the falls. It's the best place to get a photo of the falls.

The cable car is fun, but it's more fun to rent a bike and explore the trails along the river. Just a short walk across the river from downtown, Monkey Boy bike rentals offers cruisers for rent to ride along the Spokane River Centennial Trail, a 37-mile paved path. We pedaled upriver from the falls -- there are plenty of beautiful vistas. The falls, in particular, are spectacular. Riverfront Park includes a walkway alongside the falls. Canada Island is in the middle of the river and is connected by a couple of pedestrian bridges. From the island, there are some stunning views of the falls and the city skyline.

Just a block away from the hotel is my favorite coffee shop, Atticus (222 N. Howard St.). Right next door is a delicious restaurant, Mizuna, featuring local organic ingredients. If they're offering the duck breast, try it!

Take time to visit some of Spokane's other beautiful parks, including Manito Park on the city's South Hill. Looking south from downtown, you'll see the spires of the distinctive Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist (Episcopal). The park is just a couple of blocks away along Grand Avenue. There are more than 90 acres of beautiful flower beds, open spaces and lawns. There is a greenhouse conservatory, a Japanese garden, fish ponds, ducks, geese and other critters. Even in late April, there were plenty of lilacs in bloom. It's just beautiful.

The Visit Spokane website has more information on the area.

Seattle

It was a short flight on Alaska Airlines from Spokane to Seattle. Instead of renting a car, we opted for the rail link to downtown. Our hotel in the Belltown neighborhood, The Palladian, was just four blocks from the Westlake train station (underneath Macy's and Nordstrom). Originally built in 1910, the Palladian has been reinvented by the Kimpton Hotel group, which already has three hotels in downtown Seattle: the Vintage, the Monaco and the Alexis.

The hotel is just two blocks from Pike Place Market. But it's just a half-block from a major bus route at Third and Virginia. The buses and the trains were very convenient and much cheaper than renting a car and parking it overnight. The Palladian has a few of Kimpton's signature touches, quirky with lots of personality. In the lobby there are huge military hero portraits with local Seattle faces: Jimi Hendrix, Bill Gates, Dave Matthews and Kelsey Grammer. Our room featured a clawfoot bathtub and an oversized shower. There was a Mini Jambox for music and fast Wi-Fi. There's a wine-and-beer reception in the lobby each evening and free coffee in the morning.

Another Kimpton touch is a good restaurant in the lobby. Shaker and Spear features fresh seafood with local produce from the region. Try the beet salad, which comes with some delicious goat cheese and a balsamic dressing. Our server recommended the scallops. They were big -- you won't go hungry even if there are just two or three of them. It was the dessert, though, that got my attention: a warm, salted pistachio crumble. It was all green: pistachio gelato, sprinkled with more pistachios. Yum!

The next morning started out cloudy and drizzly, a perfect day to see some museums. The Seattle Art Museum was just four blocks away. Take some time to explore the collections. The Kehinde Wiley exhibit was wonderful; he took the "grand portraiture" style and reworked it, featuring urban African-American subjects. The mash-up is spectacular. This modern art collection is just one of the featured exhibitions. There are modern African exhibitions, French porcelain collections, cowboy bronze statuary -- the works. Also, be sure to take a walk through the Olympic Sculpture Park. In addition to the big outdoor sculptures, the park, located about a mile away on the water, offers stunning views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Peninsula.

On the south shore of Lake Union is the newly renovated Museum of History and Industry, or MOHAI, in the old Naval Reserve Armory. Visiting the museum is a nostalgic walk through time: Visitors can trace the history of Seattle and its major industries. There's a collection of almost 4 million artifacts and the museum is the largest private heritage organization in the state. Hanging in the center is Boeing's first commercial plane, the B-1, built in 1919. There are exhibitions on Seattle's hip-hop scene, its restaurants and its innovators. The Bezos Center for Innovation is a permanent display featuring Seattle's high-tech accomplishments.

There were two new public transit modes on my list: the new First Hill Streetcar and the rail extension over to the University of Washington. The university rail link is big, as it offers quick and easy access underneath Lake Union. It's great if you want to see a Huskies Game and you're staying downtown. I used the rail link (and a bus ride) to get to a new restaurant east of the University Village Shopping Mall: Saint Helens Cafe. The layout is interesting as it's set up one floor from the street (45th Avenue), with a bike path alongside the back of the house. There's an outside patio which opens on to the bike path. Or, you can dine indoors, looking out the south-facing windows. I had the black cod Nicoise, an imaginative takeoff of the traditional tuna salad. But the open-face Sockeye Salmon Tartare sandwich was interesting. The salmon was mixed with cream and pickled shallots—which gave it a delicious tangy taste.

If you need Seattle information, check online with Visit Seattle. If you're already in the city, stop in to one of the visitor information booths at the State Convention Center or at Pike Place Market.

San Juan Islands

If you're flying to the San Juan Islands from Seattle with Kenmore Air, you'll fall in love with Seattle's other airport, close-in Boeing Field. There's free parking, no TSA and no lines. It's just a 35-minute flight to Friday Harbor, but you'll see a completely different face of Washington: an island paradise. Friday Harbor is the main community, featuring the biggest harbor, whale-watching tours, kayak trips and other activities. There's a lively waterfront, particularly if you're waiting for the Washington State Ferry. We stayed with friends on nearby Lopez Island, so we parked the car in the ferry line, walked across the lot and had a beer at Friday's Crabhouse overlooking the harbor. The ferry also links Friday Harbor to Vancouver Island in Canada and to the mainland at Anacortes.

Much of the real estate on the island is privately held, including many vacation homes. But there is an active land trust, the San Juan Preservation Trust, dedicated to land conservation. There's also the San Juan Islands National Monument, more than 1,000 acres including islands, lighthouses and scenic vistas. Marcia DeChadenedes of the Bureau of Land Management took us to the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island (a short ferry ride from Lopez Island). From the top, we could see several of the small islands in the monument, as well as the towns of Port Townsend, Bellingham and Anacortes.

Kenmore Air flies to Lopez Island, Friday Harbor and Orcas Island, but it's easier to get around by ferry once you land. The airline also flies floatplanes from their base at South Lake Union to the harbors in Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. San Juan Island, with the towns of Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor, definitely is the most tourist-friendly destination. There's just more to do: wineries, lavender farms, more restaurants, even moped rentals. There's another park, too: the San Juan Island National Historic Park. The park features some beautiful coastline trails where you can walk along the beach and get great views across the water to Vancouver Island. I like the Bell Point Trail.

Orcas Island features historic Rosario Resort. It sits on a bluff overlooking the water. Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran built the resort more than 100 years ago. The Moran Mansion at the center of the resort now is a museum, with a pipe organ and piano in the music room. Each Saturday afternoon, there is a presentation on the resort's history.

If you're traveling around Orcas Island, stop in Eastsound at the Island Hoppin' Brewery, where they feature seven of their beers on tap. I grabbed the "Taster" plate with samples of all seven. My favorite was the India pale ale, but there is a good selection of light and dark beers.

Even if Seattle is your first stop in Washington, make time to see the other wonders of the state, including Spokane and the San Juan Islands.

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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